At age 35, Tyler Bozak is much closer to the end of his career than the beginning.
For most hockey players, it’s an age where things don’t work quite as well physically as they once did. And the recovery time after a tough spill or grueling game may be a little longer.
“You definitely feel all the little bumps and bruises and stuff a lot more than you did when you were younger,” Bozak said. “That’s for sure. You definitely have to do a lot more to get going.
“I try and get home and not be too tired because I got the kids there and I can’t make my wife do everything all day. I’ve kinda just learned as I got older — you gotta keep your body right. But then when you leave the rink, I can’t bring any of that home with me. I gotta focus on the family and do all that stuff at home.”
Bozak was part of that amazing July 1 in 2018, when general manager Doug Armstrong traded for Ryan O’Reilly and signed David Perron and Bozak in free agency.
You could make the case that Armstrong overpaid for Bozak at the time — $5 million a year over three seasons. The Blues were desperate for centers at the time, and there was no guarantee the trade with Buffalo for O’Reilly was going to go through when the Blues signed Bozak. (The O’Reilly trade didn’t come together until several hours after Bozak signed.)
But the Blues haven’t regretted signing Bozak. Not for one minute. As the team’s third-line center — and someone who could move up the lineup when necessary, Bozak was a key part of the team’s Stanley Cup run and overall success over the past three seasons.
He has been one of the top performers on the penalty kill unit, and the best faceoff man on the squad not named “O’Reilly” — although his numbers have dropped some this year.
As a free agent last offseason, Bozak had other options but returned for the Blues after taking a steep paycut. Keep in mind, the market’s never great for 35-year-old centers, especially in a flat-cap year.
Bozak’s base salary is $750,000 on a one-year deal, but with easily attainable bonuses that could boost that total to $2 million — and better yet — don’t count against the salary cap until next season. One of those bonuses kicked in Nov. 7 in Anaheim when he played his 10th game of the season, netting Bozak an additional $750,000.
(He gets an additional $250,000 if he plays in 41 games this season, and can earn up to $250,000 depending on how far the Blues advance in the playoffs — assuming, of course, they get there.)
“Christmas is coming up,” a smiling Bozak said, referring to the bonus money. “I got three kids now, so that’ll help for sure. ... They’ve been getting their (Christmas) lists together since probably January of this year. They like to bring out the catalogues and circle everything they want. Pretty much everything is circled in it, so it’s gonna be tough to pick and choose.”
When Craig Berube was making out his lineup list for the year, he circled Bozak for the fourth line. Bozak has occasionally moved up the lineup, as has been the case all three previous seasons due to injury — or this season, due to players landing on the COVID list.
But with Oskar Sundvist making his season debut Thursday, returning from knee and hip surgery, it was back to centering the fourth line for Bozak a line that currently includes Klim Kostin and James Neal as his wingers. Fourth line duty has meant fewer minutes.
“It’s definitely an adjustment,” Bozak said. “I’d say it’s a lot easier getting in a rhythm out there when you’re playing that regular shift. Where you know when you’re going out there, and you keep going out there. So that’s been a change. Gotta stay ready at all times and keep the legs ready and not tighten them up.”
Because in close games, when Berube shortens his bench, it’s the fourth line that sees its ice time drop.
“But it’s still fun to PK and help out there,” Bozak said. “Obviously, when we do get the chance out there, we’re gonna try and contribute as much as we can.”
Bozak is averaging 13 minutes 2 seconds of ice time this year. That’s down 2:39 over his three previous seasons with the Blues. Some of that lost ice time is a result of no longer getting any power play time.
“He’s trying to adjust to it,” Berube said. “It’s not easy. It takes time and he’s not used to that. It’s a different role for him.
“He’s a great team guy, we all know that and he’s a valuable player for us. He’s just used differently. ... It takes a little time to change the way you think about how you need to play the game when you’re playing on the fourth line and are on a different role like that.
“I think he’s doing a pretty good job and I think he’ll keep improving and getting better.”
Bozak, who has six assists but no goals so far this season, played a season-low 8:45 Thursday night against San Jose. But that may have been a result of falling hard to the ice and slamming into the boards on a “slew-foot” by San Jose’s Kevin Labanc in the first period.
A slew-foot occurs when an opposing player uses his foot or leg to take out the legs of another player from behind. It usually results in a penalty. In the case of Labanc it resulted in a two-minute penalty for tripping Thursday, and a one-game suspension from the league Friday.
“I can’t speak for him,” Bozak said. “I don’t know if there was any intent there, but obviously it’s a dangerous play. ... Obviously, I was upset. There should still be a respect level out there on the ice. Everybody plays hard. If it’s clean, it’s fine. When stuff like that happens, not saying he meant to or if there was intent, but you’ve seen that bad injuries can happen and guys can get hurt.”