Leafs’ Muzzin Ready for 1st Game Versus Kings

TORONTO — Jake Muzzin will be in uncharted waters.

The big defenceman has made a home on the Maple Leafs’ blue line since the Los Angeles Kings traded him to Toronto nine months ago.

A calming influence as part of a defence corps in flux, Muzzin provides consistent play, a physical presence when needed and — at times — has been the voice of reason in a market where a three-game winning or losing streak can be cause for either celebration or panic.

A little uncomfortable in the spotlight, he’ll also be one of the focal points when the Leafs host the Kings on Tuesday night

“We’ll find out,” Muzzin said of what to expect against his former team. “It’s my first one. Right now it seems kind of funny, but maybe when it comes time it’ll be a little different.

Toronto Maple Leafs Jake Muzzin
Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Muzzin (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

“I don’t know.”

What the 30-year-old from Woodstock, Ont., does know is his time in Los Angeles was life-changing.

From Undrafted to Stanley Cup

Selected by Pittsburgh in the fifth round of the 2007 NHL draft, Muzzin didn’t sign with the Penguins and put his name back in the proverbial hat in 2009. He was passed over entirely in his second draft go-around and returned to junior before inking a deal with the Kings as a free agent in January 2010.

He spent parts of three seasons in the AHL and didn’t suit up in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs with Los Angeles, but was there to hoist the franchise’s first title that June.

Two years later, he was a full-time NHLer and an integral part of Kings’ second championship.

And even though he’s a member of the Leafs, part of Muzzin will always be in Los Angeles, especially the area southwest of downtown known as South Bay on the Pacific Ocean where many of the players live. He keeps a residence there in the summer with his wife and daughter.

“A lot of good memories,” he said. “A lot of good friendships … it’s home.”

The Kings come to town with some familiar faces — Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter — but are a club that’s seen its championship window slammed shut.

L.A. teams of the past pummelled the opposition in the rough-and-tumble Western Conference where going into corners was an at-your-own-risk endeavour.

Jake Muzzin
Former King Jake Muzzin (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Now the Kings are old, slow and without a clear-cut path back to the top.

“We were a big, heavy team … that’s the teams that were coming out of (the West),” Muzzin said. “Heavy teams that forecheck and wear you down mentally and grind you down physically.

“That was the way to win out there.”

Doughty said the Kings miss what Muzzin, who can become an unrestricted free agent July 1, brought to the table.

“We lost a veteran presence, a big two-way guy that played both ways on the special teams,” the fellow blue-liner told reporters after the Kings finished their on-ice workout at the Leafs’ practice facility. “In Toronto he’s become more of a defensive guy and he does a really good job of that shutting down other team’s good players.

“Just a good guy in the room, good person.”

Leafs captain John Tavares left the New York Islanders for Toronto in free agency two summers ago. While this situation is different, he can relate to the emotions Muzzin will experience Tuesday.

“A lot of memories that come through, especially when it’s a team you spent a lot of time with,” Tavares said. “You go in at a young age and you grow and mature.

“It makes a big impact on your career and your life.”

For their part, the Leafs have been thrilled with Muzzin since his January arrival.

“He’s got real good confidence,” Toronto head coach Mike Babcock said. “Him and (Zach) Hyman are a lot alike that way. They’re doing it the right way whether I’m watching them or not.

Toronto Maple Leafs John Tavares
Toronto Maple Leafs centre John Tavares (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

“He’s an important leader for us.”

Muzzin, who missed Saturday’s 4-3 shootout victory against Philadelphia for personal reasons after leaving last Tuesday’s 4-3 overtime setback to Washington with a charley horse, has three goals and nine points in 14 outings in 2019-20.

He’s battled through 597 regular-season and playoff games in the NHL. His 598th will come against the team he’s never faced — the one that gave him a chance.

“It’ll be fun out there seeing some of the guys I played with for a long time,” Muzzin said. “It’ll be a little different.”

Tavares Nearing Return

Babcock came into the locker room and sat next to Tavares for a brief word in full view of the media Monday.

The unorthodox exchange — usually a coach and player will converse away from the cameras and microphones — came as the star centre looks to make his return following seven games on the shelf with a broken finger.

“He’s feeling good,” Babcock said. “He’s still got to get cleared by the medical people, but the bottom line in the end is you’ve got to feel good enough to play.”

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

The coach then added with a grin: “I have no answers.”

Tavares, who was close to dressing in Philadelphia over the weekend, sounded optimistic.

“I know I’m right there,” he said.

Hyman, meanwhile, is “really close” after tearing the ACL in his right knee last spring, but the winger added there are still some hurdles to overcome before he’s ready for game action.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 4, 2019.


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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press