The Toronto Maple Leafs’ defence was the biggest question heading into this season. Are they good enough or do they need to make significant improvements? Toronto’s management gave the group half the season to see if they were good enough, and it was clear they desperately needed to improve the right side of their defence.
There were plenty of names thrown around as potential trade targets for the Maple Leafs, but the cost of those players often started with possibly giving up William Nylander or one of their two defensive prospects in Rasmus Sandin or Timothy Liljegren. Somehow, general manager Kyle Dubas was able to add a top-four defenseman without giving up any roster players or their top prospects.
.@SportChek Player Alert: The @MapleLeafs have acquired defenceman Jake Muzzin from Los Angeles in exchange for forward Carl Grundstrom, the rights to Sean Durzi and Toronto’s first-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft.#LeafsForever pic.twitter.com/3DYt3w0dc1
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) January 29, 2019
The Maple Leafs traded Carl Grundstrom, Sean Durzi and their 2019 first-round pick to the Los Angeles Kings for Jake Muzzin. Now it does hurt to lose those players, and seeing the Maple Leafs trade their first-round pick brings up anxious memories of how well that’s gone for the team in previous trades. But the impact that Muzzin will have on the team is well worth the risk.
Muzzin Stabilizes Maple Leafs’ Defence
One constant criticism of this talented Leafs team is that they aren’t tough enough and get pushed around easily. So by adding Muzzin to their roster, they address all of those issues. Muzzin’s a big defenceman who isn’t a stranger to throwing his weight around when opposing players try to skate down the wings.
Now he’s not just a big body on the ice as he’s solid defensively and is great at getting the puck out to the neutral zone, which is something the Maple Leafs have been struggling with recently. Muzzin can also contribute on the scoresheet with 21 points in 50 games this season with the Kings and he had a career-high 42 points in 74 games last season.
So where will Muzzin fit into the Maple Leafs defensive pairings?
Muzzin will partner with Morgan Rielly and allows Babcock to move Hainsey down to 3rd pairing. Will be an excellent resource for Dermott.
— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) January 29, 2019
The reasoning for acquiring Muzzin is to give Morgan Rielly a better defence partner than Ron Hainsey so it’s no surprise Muzzin will slot into the top pairing. One issue with that is both players are left-handed so only one will be playing on his strong side. We will have to wait until their first game together to see what coach Mike Babcock decides.
The other aspect of putting Muzzin alongside Rielly is that it pushes Hainsey down to the third pair with Travis Dermott. Hainsey was great for the Maple Leafs initially, but his age seems to be catching up with him as he looks out of place going up against opposing top lines.
Playing on the third pairing will help shelter him from tough matchups and will allow him to mentor Dermott as he did with Rielly when they first played together. Muzzin helps to round out the Maple Leafs’ defence by being a top pairing option with Rielly and he brings some much-needed physicality to this young talented team.
Muzzin’s Effect on the Maple Leafs’ Salary Cap
With the addition of Muzzin, the Maple Leafs get a 29-year-old defenseman who is under contract for this season and next season at a cap hit of only $4 million. This is a fantastic acquisition for the Maple Leafs as they needed help on defence, but didn’t want to waste assets on a rental player. This gives them some stability heading into next season’s cap crunch.
The coming cap crunch of needing to re-sign Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner means that the Maple Leafs will be tight against the salary cap ceiling next season. So the addition of Muzzin likely means that Jake Gardiner won’t be re-signed unless he takes a huge pay cut to stay at a similar cap hit to his current $4.05 million.
Now another perspective to this is that by adding Muzzin it makes Nikita Zaitsev easily expendable, assuming a team would take on his contract. The two biggest salary cap hurdles the Maple Leafs have is Zaitsev’s $4.5 million cap hit for five more seasons and Patrick Marleau’s $6.25 million cap hit for one more season.
Marleau is unlikely to be traded because of how good of a mentor he’s been to Matthews and Marner and because he has a full no-move clause attached to his contract, but even moving Zaitsev could give the Maple Leafs enough flexibility to keep Gardiner.
The addition of Muzzin gives the Maple Leafs a player who can play top pairing minutes with Rielly and has a fantastic contract at a great price. This also means that Hainsey will be played in his proper role on the third pairing alongside Dermott. Unfortunately, by adding Muzzin, it might mean this will be Gardiner’s last season with the Maple Leafs unless management can clear enough salary.