EL SEGUNDO, CA AND LAS VEGAS, NV — As the Los Angeles Kings emerged from their 2010 training camp and exhibition season, conventional wisdom was that, with veteran defenseman Matt Greene on the shelf as he recovers from shoulder surgery, one young defenseman would make the Kings’ 2010-11 opening night roster.
All eyes were on highly-touted blue liner Thomas Hickey, who was selected by the Kings in the first round (fourth overall) in the 2007 National Hockey League Entry Draft, and was a fairly heavy favorite to make the big club’s roster.
That left defenseman prospect Jake Muzzin, 20, on the Kings’ roster as the chosen one, at least until Greene returns to action.
Hickey spent the 2009-10 season with the Monarchs, but missed most of the season due to injury. At the same time, Muzzin played a full season with the Sault Ste. Marie (Soo) Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League and then played for the Monarchs, recording as assist in one regular season game, along with a goal and three assists for four points in 13 playoff games.
The difference in ice time helped give the 6-2, 216-pound native of Woodstock, Ontario an edge, and that showed during training camp.
“[Muzzin is] just a little bit better player right now,” said Kings head coach Terry Murray. “There’s nothing to be said that’s negative about Hickey. I loved what his summer was, his work. He’s competed at a pretty good level—a big improvement in that area.”
“Muzzin has come in and put in the same work as Hickey,” added Murray following his team’s 3-2 pre-season win over the Colorado Avalanche at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas on October 3. “His size is a factor, his skating, his shot is a factor on the back end of the second power play.”
The time spent with the Monarchs late last season gave Muzzin a boost in terms of being familiar with the Kings.
“Going to Manchester helped me out a lot, knowing the system, knowing the defensive zone coverage, how the Kings play and what they want out of their defensemen with the pinching in [at the blue line], stepping up on the rush,” Muzzin explained. “It helped me with the system and learning some faces around the organization.”
“It was a lot of fun,” Muzzin elaborated. “I got up there, and, within a couple of days, [Monarchs head coach Mark Morris] put me in the lineup. I didn’t think I was going to get in and they put me in.”
“I played one regular season game and then into the playoffs. I kept playing and playing and I was playing well, I thought. It was a good experience for me to meet the core group at Manchester and to get to know some of the faces around the organization.”
While Hickey has the offensive skills and is known for his ability to move the puck, Muzzin showed his two-way ability in the exhibition games, along with some physical play, giving him a clear advantage.
“The one thing that he showed consistently in the games that he played in [is that] he has great gaps through the middle of the ice on the defensive part of the game,” Murray noted. “He keeps it tight, he [forces turnovers], and he breaks up those rushes early at our blue line.”
“On the other side, he’s pinching down and keeping plays alive in the offensive zone,” Murray added. “Those are some of the things that have jumped out at us that gives him the edge.”
Some of the Kings’ veteran blue liners took notice as well.
“From the limited time I’ve seen him play, I think he’s a good, solid defenseman,” said Kings defenseman Rob Scuderi. “He’s definitely got some offensive upside. He’s got good hands, a great shot. Hopefully, he can develop as time goes on and while he’s here [and] can carve a little niche for himself here.”
But the grizzled veteran preached patience with the young kid as well.
“We’ll see how it happens, he’s still a young guy, so he has some things to learn,” Scuderi emphasized. “At this level, for a defenseman, it’s tough. It’s just about repetition. You have to see a situation over and over and over again and learn to take care of it.”
Indeed, Muzzin is not yet a finished product, and has a lot of work ahead of him, and he stressed that defensive positioning and making that first pass to clear the zone is at the top of his list.
“Being in position is really important in the NHL, where the guys are bigger and faster,” said Muzzin.“If you’re out of position, you’re going to get beaten.”
“Passing is so important in the NHL,” added Muzzin. “I have to continue working on passing and being in position. The rest of the game will come.”
Although he may wind up back with the Monarchs when Greene returns to the lineup, Muzzin is not thinking about that.
“I’m excited for the opportunity to be here,” he said. “I’ve just got to continue building, listening to the older guys and the coaches and just come ready to work every day.”
“It’s been a quick transition for me from junior last year to Manchester at the end of last year, and here I am,” he added. “But I feel good out there. I feel strong, I feel ready. I just have to continue being focused every day and ready to work.”