The Toronto Maple Leafs, in the first big trade prior to the Feb. 25 trade deadline, picked up left-handed defenseman Jake Muzzin from the Los Angeles Kings for their 2019 first-round draft pick and two prospects, former second-round picks Carl Grundstrom and Sean Durzi (unsigned). Although it wasn’t a surprise that the Maple Leafs made a trade – it was widely acknowledged they needed help on their rear guard – it was a bit of a surprise that the deal happened so soon.
Because the trade was made late on Monday evening, Maple Leaf fans are still gaining information about Muzzin. In this post, I’ll try to answer a number questions about Muzzin prior to his debut with the team.
Question #1: Muzzin’s Roster Spot and the Consequences
The Maple Leafs announced early that Muzzin will partner with Morgan Rielly on the Maple Leaf defense’s top pairing. This move makes sense because Muzzin can offer Rielly some needed rest and stress-relief after playing so many defensively-tough minutes. Certainly, with the Kings, Muzzin grew accustomed to playing tough minutes and lots of them. [As a note, Muzzin logged 37:18 minutes in Game 5 (an overtime game) of the 2014 Stanley Cup Final against the New York Rangers] He should fit in well with new partner Rielly, who will be freer to assume the more offensive role he excels at. He should shine, as Muzzin does what he does best – be a defensive horse.
Ron Hainsey will be moved down the pairings, at least when Jake Gardiner returns from his back injury (he’s day-to-day). The Maple Leafs’ depth chart right now shows Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev as the second defense pairing. Hainsey, who’s been a good soldier and has performed admirably in unnaturally big minutes, is best suited for a lesser role. In short, one addition to the team’s top-two pairing seems, on the face of it, to have eased a number of issues for the entire defense.
Many fans wondered aloud about picking up the left-handed Muzzin, when it was obvious a right-hander would have been preferred. Perhaps it would be better if Muzzin played on his natural side, but that hasn’t been his history. In fact, this season he’s played the most minutes with Alec Martinez, who is also a leftie. So, in fact, as he suits up for the blue and white, little changes for Muzzin. There is every reason to think that his pairing with Reilly will be effective.
Moving to a stronger team will also help Muzzin. Although he played with superstar defenseman Drew Doughty a few seasons ago, that hasn’t been the case recently. For the past few seasons he has been paired with defensemen far less talented than Doughty. Because neither Gardiner nor Rielly fall into the category of “small talent,” Muzzin could shine with his new team.
Question #2: What Was Muzzin’s Early Hockey History?
After his first season with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, Muzzin was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the fifth round of the 2007 NHL Draft. But, he didn’t sign, and stayed with the Greyhounds. He re-entered the draft in 2009, but never received a phone call. With little choice remaining, he returned to the Greyhounds as an over-age player.
Denny Lambert, best known as an enforcer in his 493 NHL games with the Anaheim Ducks, Ottawa Senators, Nashville Predators and Atlanta Thrashers, was the head coach of the OHL’s Greyhounds when Muzzin played there. He remembered Muzzin well. Early in his OHL career, Lambert noted that Muzzin had a hard time logging even 20 minutes. However, by the 2009-10 season, he was playing almost double that time and was named the league’s top defenseman. Lambert called Muzzin’s growth as a hockey player “a story of perseverance.”
When Muzzin was with the Greyhounds, he was Lambert’s “go-to guy.” Lambert added that Muzzin “did everything really well. He could kill penalties; he could play on the power play; great first pass; good shot.” He was “a professional.” After being named the OHL’s top defenseman, Muzzin signed with the Kings as a free agent in 2010. By 2013, after 146 games in the minors, he was an NHLer.
Question #3: What Do Kings’ Media Folks Say About Him?
Daryl Evans, the Kings radio color commentator, has called Kings games throughout Muzzin’s career. He spent considerable time laying out Muzzin’s hockey skills. First, he is consistent. “On a team that has had a lot of difficulty this year, he’s been a really good, consistent player at both ends of the rink.” His lack of scoring this season is more about the Kings being a weak team than it is about his value to the team.
Evans noted that Muzzin plays “a complete game, he’s matured nicely, he’s become a leader on this team and I think will be a great addition for the Toronto Maple Leafs.” Evans also noted that Muzzin’s offensive game has been hidden with the Kings, but his scoring numbers should increase because of how the Maple Leafs play.
Evans believes Muzzin’s defensive game gets overlooked, but says he’s difficult to play against. “He’s got an edge to his game, he can come up with the big hit, he’s got mobility back there.” Adding, “When he’s on the penalty kill you can count on him to get pucks out on the first attempt and … he’s going to win a lot of those battles (around the net).”
Evans didn’t see Muzzin being left-handed as an issue. “He can play both sides. He can also play in all situations. Power play, penalty kill, you can use him as a shutdown guy against the other team’s top players.”
Some of the other strengths Evans listed about Muzzin included (a) he’s strong and can compete in the corners and win one-on-one battles; (b) he makes good choices when he’s clearing pucks; (c) he doesn’t panic; (d) he’s nasty; (e) he’s “heavy,” “hard” but “clean;” (f) he doesn’t take a lot of penalties; (g) he’s an unselfish, team-oriented player; and, finally (h) he’s got a high hockey IQ.
Question #4: What Does Muzzin Bring to the Maple Leafs?
Muzzin brings leadership to the Maple Leafs. As Lambert noted, when he coached Muzzin with the Greyhounds, “He was my captain and he was the leader. I didn’t have to worry about the team because I knew when we spoke, he’d let me know how the team was doing and what we needed to do to correct things. He was a great leader at communicating both on and off the ice.”
Muzzin also brings playoff experience with 50 games. And, he isn’t a rental. He’s signed through the 2019-20 season at a reasonable $4-million cap hit.
Question #5: Was Muzzin a Maple Leaf Fan Growing Up?
As James Mirtle tweeted, Muzzin noted he “was a little shocked to get the call … very excited to join Toronto. I was just thinking about playing them, I was like damn, now I’m a part of that team.” Muzzin added, “It’s kind of funny how life works. Here we are and I’m coming back home to play for the team I rooted for growing up.”
Obviously, Muzzin – like John Tavares and other Ontario-born Maple Leaf players – grew up cheering for his Maple Leafs. It’s good to have another local boy on the team.