In January of 2019, the Los Angeles Kings signalled to the hockey world that a rebuild was imminent. They traded defenseman Jake Muzzin to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Carl Grundstrom, the rights to Sean Durzi and a first-round pick, which LA used to get Tobias Björnfot.
At the time, there was a mixed response as to who won the trade. The Maple Leafs got a top-pairing defenseman and gave up nothing on their current roster. The Kings got a high draft pick, a highly-touted defensive prospect, and a winger who was lost in the overpopulated Toronto system of forwards.
Is that picture clearing yet? Not everyone has a crystal ball – just thousands of Twitter users, and that annoying co-worker who thinks he knows everything about hockey. Let’s try The Hockey Writers’ Magic 8-Ball with three questions.
1. Could Muzzin play 10 to 20 minutes of shutdown defence?
2. Would Muzzin keep his defensive partner in line?
3. Is Muzzin a good character guy, who could mentor other players?
“As I see it, yes,” floats to the surface. Several times during the 2019-20 campaign, Kings head coach Todd McLellan said the team played 50 minutes – it was the other 10 that lost the game. Those minutes would’ve been filled by Muzzin.
On nights Los Angeles put together a solid 60, there were several defensive breakdowns. Those would’ve been significantly reduced with Muzzin on the ice.
Muzzin Was Needed in LA
Let’s cut to the chase, Muzzin is a two-time Stanley Cup winner, and he just signed an extension in Toronto because of his skill and leadership. There is no doubt he could’ve changed some of the Kings’ losses into wins this season.
Related: Longest Stanley Cup Droughts
Now, would it matter? Would the Kings with Muzzin beat the Boston Bruins, St. Louis Blues, or Tampa Bay Lightning in the playoffs? “Cannot predict now,” says the Magic 8-Ball.
Kings’ fans knew the team would not be cashing in immediately when they got prospects and a pick. But, the fan base was not prepared to be in the basement of the Western Conference either.
Back to the THW’s Magic 8-Ball.
1. Will Grunstrom be a late-bloomer?
2. Will Bjornfot live up to his billing?
3. Will Durzi be the next Doughty?
After several shakes, I got: “Cannot predict now.” “Concentrate and ask again.” “Reply hazy, try again.” Well, no magic on this one, so we’ll examine for ourselves.
It’s Up to the Kings’ Farm System
Grundstrom and Björnfot made the roster out of training camp. However, that was quickly determined to be a fluke as they were reassigned to the Ontario Reign after just three NHL games.
Grundstrom, who was drafted in the second round of the 2016 draft, shows flashes of being a top-six forward. Last season he scored in his NHL debut, putting up five goals and an assist in 15 games. He recorded four assists in 13 games in the 2019-20 campaign.
His time with the Kings has earned him some nicknames, including Tank and Tonka. At 6-foot, 201-pounds, he plays physical and can be heavy on the puck. That’s the kind of player the Kings need.
“He’s got to find a way to contribute a little bit, McLellan told reporters after Grundstrom was sent down in February, “there are some other things that he’s got to do well. He has the nickname Tonka for a reason, and he’s got to use that body and get involved and create opportunities for other players, too.”
Bjornfot made his NHL debut at the age of 18 years, 182 days, the fifth-youngest King to appear in a game. However, the early promise coming out of training came quickly faded. He was a minus-four in his first three games, lost the top pairing spot with Drew Doughty, and his ice time and confidence were dropping each period. Before leaving the locker room, the Kings’ Norris Trophy winner had some advice.
“You’re a young guy, you’ve got a bright future in this league. When you’re not playing, there’s no point in being up in the NHL just sitting in the stands watching, so it’s good for him to go down in the A, get some playing time, get his confidence back up, and he’ll be back here eventually,” Doughty told the media after Bjornfot was sent down.
Although his first three NHL games did not go as he or the Kings hoped, don’t forget how much scouts loved this kid, including THW’s prospect report: “Björnfot will be an impact defender on the team that drafts him, capable of being used in all situations. Whether he’s leading the rush, quarterbacking the power play or working the penalty kill, the young defender makes himself known on the ice.”
The third part of the trade was the rights to Durzi, who the Maple Leafs had drafted in the second round of the 2018 draft. The Kings signed him in July 2019. He was considered by many to be the big piece coming back the other way – check out what Fox Sports West reported they heard from scouts about Durzi:
Here is more from the Kings’ team scouts as reported by the Kings Insider, Jon Rosen:
He moves the puck at an “elite” level, using very good feet and vision and a poise that was compared to Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in the sense that he grades well at looking off first and second options to find a third option both on breakouts and while pulling strings in the offensive zone. He’s excellent at reading plays and making what were described as “check-downs” and doesn’t force players to wait to get them the puck. This allows him to play at a raised pace both and in transition and from the blue line in the offensive zone, where he’s capable of creating offence. It’s not easy to find players who project as power play quarterback-types in the NHL, but Durzi, 6-foot and 187-pounds, certainly qualifies as a player who makes good reads and distributes the puck well to drive offence.
In conclusion, the Maple Leafs are contenders with Muzzin, who is a big piece of the present and future. The Kings have next to nothing to show for trading him, other than a lot of hopes and a lot of pressure on the farm system to develop these prospects – and fast.
As it stands, this is a clear win for Toronto. How long it takes – or if it will ever look like a win for LA, the Magic 8-Ball says “better not tell you now.”
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.