Maple Leafs’ Plans Have Changed with Muzzin on LTIR

All Toronto Maple Leafs’ fans took a collective gasp when defenseman Jake Muzzin hit the ice in the chaos of a collision against the Montreal Canadiens last Monday evening. It’s no surprise, after Muzzin took a hard hit to the head, that the news was bad. The Maple Leafs put Muzzin on the Long Term Injury Reserve.  

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According to LTIR rules, Muzzin will miss at least 10 games and 24 days. That means he’ll be out until at least March 16th. That timing coincides with the NHL trade deadline, which comes five days later on March 21st.  

Does Muzzin’s Injury Change the Maple Leafs’ Trade Deadline Plans?

Does Muzzin’s injury change the Maple Leaf’s trade deadline plans? There’s no obvious answer: it depends on how bad Muzzin’s concussion is. If it’s serious enough that he’ll be out the remainder of the regular season, that gives the Maple Leafs $5.625 million more cap space to find a replacement for him. If the organization thinks he’ll be back around the time his LTIR expires or he’ll be reactivated before the end of the regular season, that extra cap space won’t exist.  

Jake Muzzin Toronto Maple Leafs
Jake Muzzin, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However it plays out, it raises questions about Muzzin’s future with the Maple Leafs. This is his second concussion in just over a month. He’d just returned to action after his first concussion on February 15th. 

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Before he suffered these two head injuries, for the first time since becoming a Maple Leaf Muzzin had struggled on the ice. In his first two-plus seasons with the team, Muzzin’s five-on-five, goals-for percentage has been 60 percent (he’d been on ice for 151 goals for and 100 against). This season his on-ice goals-for percentage was only 44 percent (he’s been on-ice for 34 goals for and 43 against). 

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Muzzin suffered this latest concussion on his 33rd birthday. On top of the two recent concussions, he’s suffered other injuries in each of the last two playoffs. Muzzin’s been a great player for the Maple Leafs because he plays the game at a high physical level. He’s been credited with over 1,600 hits in 738 games played in his eleven-year career. Any one of these injuries, or a combination of all of them, could be having a profound effect on Jake Muzzin’s performance.

The Problems Muzzin’s Injuries Pose for the Team

The problems Muzzin’s injury creates for the Maple Leafs for this season are two-fold.  

First, if Muzzin is out for the season, how does the team replace him? Even with their recent acquisition of Ilya Lyubushkin, some hockey insiders insist the team needs more help on the right side of the defense. Now they’d also lose the left-side defenseman who has been the stalwart of their defense the past two seasons. Instead of worrying about just one side of their defense, they’d need help on both sides.   

Second, if Muzzin does return, how effective would he be? Could he be expected to play twenty-plus minutes a game every second day, under grueling playoff conditions? Or, would he have to be placed in a diminished, third-pairing role, playing fewer minutes? If he is, who rises up to take his place?

The Long-Term Effect of Muzzin’s Injury on the Team

Then there’s the long-term effect on the team. Muzzin’s signed for two more seasons at $5,625,000. Does his contract suddenly become an albatross? The deal is structured in a way that makes trading Muzzin possible. The Maple Leafs were able to frontload his contract in such a way that it might be appealing to a team struggling to make the salary-cap floor. 

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While Muzzin’s salary-cap hit is $5.625 million, his actual salary for the next two seasons is $4 million a season. After July 1, 2022, when he’s due a $2 million bonus payment, he’ll only be owed $6 million over the remaining two years of the contract. From a business-only standpoint, that’s good. But the fly in the ointment is that Muzzin would have to agree to the deal because he has a no-move clause in his contract.

If Muzzin’s Injury Is Serious?

While we don’t wish this on any professional hockey player, it’s possible that Muzzin’s injury is career-ending. If that were the case, he could retire or remain on LTIR for the remainder of the contract. In either case, the Maple Leafs would get full credit for his cap space. 

Jake Muzzin Toronto Maple Leafs
Jake Muzzin, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

From a team-building perspective, is there a silver lining for the Maple Leafs? The past two seasons Muzzin’s been hurt in the first round of the playoffs, which has left a huge hole in the team’s lineup in each of those playoff rounds. With his latest injury happening with 30 games left in the season, it gives the Maple Leafs time to work out a solution prior to the start of the playoffs.  

Related: Maple Leafs Not Getting What They Need From Muzzin or Holl

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]