MISSISSAUGA, Ontario. -- Tyler Bozak
, the 23-year-old free-agent who is being projected as a pillar of the Maple Leafs' renaissance, says he is champing at the bit to do his part.
Reservations about the season-compromising knee injury he suffered last season while with the University of Denver are a thing of the past, he told NHL.com on Wednesday during an appearance at an Upper Deck event at the Hershey Centre.
"We've been skating hard for the last three weeks and (the knee) feels 100 percent," Bozak said. "It feels all better and back to normal."
Even though the injury to his knee scared the daylights out of him and limited him to just 23 games as a sophomore with the Pioneers, Bozak insists there was a silver lining associated with the first serious injury of his young career.
"The injury actually got my upper body bigger and that was what I needed," Bozak said. "So, in a way, I look at it as I know it's not a good thing, but I try to take positives out of it and I am stronger and my upper body is a lot bigger.
In fact, Bozak was considered ready by many to come out after his freshman season at Denver, but decided to stay a second year because he did not feel he was strong enough to compete at the pro level. Now, however, thanks to all the time spent in the gym during the rehab process, he believes he has a body ready for the rigors of the NHL.
"I've put on about 20 pounds since last year when I decided to stay, so I think it was a good decision and I am happy with it," Bozak said.
Leaf fans are happy with the addition of Bozak, part of an aggressive overhaul of the team being engineered by GM Brian Burke. Not only has Burke brought in a number of proven NHL free agents, but he has rolled the dice with some young unproven free agents.
Since the 2008-09 season ended, Burke and his group has signed Bozak, Christian Hanson, Robert Slaney and Jonas Gustavsson
, a Swedish goalie considered at the time of his signing to be the best goalie not playing in the NHL.
"(Bozak)’s a responsible player at both ends of the ice and he has shown the ability to put points on the board with his quickness at the collegiate level," Burke said upon signing Bozak, who was pursued by virtually every team in the League.
"The injury actually got my upper body bigger and that was what I needed. So, in a way, I look at it as I know it's not a good thing, but I try to take positives out of it and I am stronger and my upper body is a lot bigger." - Tyler Bozak
The interest in Bozak was to be expected.
Bozak's college coach George Gwozdecky compared him to Paul Stastny, another U of D product who is now a burgeoning star with the Colorado Avalanche. In two NCAA seasons, Bozak produced 57 points in 60 games. He led the Pioneers in scoring as a freshman, but was still a plus-12 with five shorthanded goals. In his final season of juniors, playing with the Victoria Grizzlies of the British Columbia Hockey League, Bozak put up a league-best 128 points.
Now, however, Bozak knows his past accomplishments mean very little. Toronto is hungry for a winner after several lean years and Bozak and Co. are being counted on to be at the vanguard of that resurgence.
He says the opportunity to right the Maple Leafs was part of the reason he signed with the Original Six franchise.
"I know Burkie and the type of guy he is and how good a general manager he is," Bozak said. "It's a team that is sort of in a rebuilding process with our defense and our goaltending now, all the way up to our forwards. It's exciting and something I wanted to be a part of.
"There's still a lot of competition here and it is going to be hard to make this team. I'm just looking to fit in and fill a role."
That's right, Bozak plans to make the Maple Leafs this year, jumping right from college to the most-scrutinized team in the League. He was in Toronto after he signed in the spring and got a taste for the passion the city possesses for the team. He has spent the summer here, working out with other Toronto prospects and he remains amazed about how consumed the populace is with the Leafs
"I've had a good taste of Toronto and I love it," Bozak said. "When I was up here last year after my (college) season, I got a really good taste. I was just in the room and saw the guys and how everything went. The fan support is unbelievable here and the organization is in great shape and things are looking up for the next few years."
Author: Shawn P. Roarke | NHL.com Managing Editor