When Kyle Dubas acquired Jake Muzzin from the Los Angeles Kings in January of 2019 it changed the makeup of not only the Leafs’ blue line, but their entire roster. Muzzin immediately added some nastiness and championship experience to a Leafs team that was short on both, becoming a stabilizing presence on the way to another hard fought playoff series against Boston.
Entering his first full season as a Leaf, Muzzin was slotted in for duty alongside newly acquired Tyson Barrie on a revamped Toronto defensive unit but much like the rest of the team, the pairing struggled to begin the season. Justin Holl eventually took Barrie’s place forming an effective shutdown duo with Muzzin as the Leafs began to turn their season around with Sheldon Keefe at the helm. With Barrie taking a while to adjust to his new surroundings and the pairing of Rielly and Ceci struggling against top competition, Muzzin was the Leafs’ most reliable defenceman for the early part of the season until injury struck at the end of December. He would return after missing a month with a foot injury only to get hurt again 15 games later and was on the injured list when the season was paused.
Though Muzzin had yet to play a full season in Toronto, Dubas and his management team had already seen enough to reward him with a new four-year, $22.5 million extension ensuring the bruising blueliner would remain a key part of the Leafs defensive core.
Muzzin only got into 53 games for the Leafs this year but still managed to rack up 6 goals and 17 assists while playing 21:35 per game, mostly in a shutdown role. He started just 41.7% of his 5v5 shifts in the offensive zone – the 2nd lowest mark among regular Leafs defenders behind his usual partner, Justin Holl. Despite difficult minutes against top competition, Muzzin had the 3rd best xGF% on the Leafs blue line at 52.3% and his team outscored the opposition 53-49 with him on the ice at 5v5.
He’s the most physical defenceman on the Leafs roster dishing out 6.3 hits per 60 minutes at 5v5, making sure nothing comes easily for the opposition’s best players night in and night out.
— Eric (@Kingsgifs) March 21, 2019
The chart below shows that Muzzin spends most of his ice time playing against the other team’s best forwards:
© Micah Blake McCurdy 2020, hockeyviz.com
Being saddled with such difficult matchups and zone starts, and still putting up positive on-ice numbers makes him an invaluable member of the Leafs’ defence.
As integral as Muzzin is at even strength, his contributions on the penalty kill are every bit as valuable. Of the 6 Toronto defencemen that have seen regular penalty killing duties at various times this season, Muzzin eats up the 2nd most time at 2:33 per game and has the 2nd best GA/60 as well. He’s a shot blocking machine, especially when playing shorthanded, registering 14.6 blocks/60 on the PK – good for the top mark on the team and the 3rd highest mark among all NHL defencemen with at least 50 minutes played on the penalty kill.
Earlier this season, as Muzzin was set to return to the lineup after his first stint on the injured list, Sheldon Keefe referred to him as “in many ways, the conscience of our team.” That should tell you a lot of what you need to know about what Jake Muzzin means to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In his short time as a Leaf his voice has become one of the most respected in the room. How quickly he established himself as a leader on this team comes as little surprise given the way Muzzin carries himself, both on and off the ice.
Muzzin: “It’s not Xs and Os. It’s playing with passion and playing with heart. That’s what we need to do.” #Leafs
— Terry Koshan (@koshtorontosun) November 18, 2019
While Muzzin might not be elite in any one phase of the game, there isn’t much that he doesn’t do well. He’s a capable puck mover who can handle stronger opponents down low, maintains a good gap defending the rush, and skates well for a big man.
Muzzin deals with the incoming Pens forechecker and the Leafs get a great chance from it.
Get used to this. pic.twitter.com/v5oFMD2wjI
— Nick DeSouza (@NickDeSouza_) February 3, 2019
He makes good reads in all three zones, contributes on both special teams units, can beat goaltenders with his heavy point shot, and can completely flip the momentum of a game at any moment with a crushing body check. Sometimes he does all of those things in a single shift.
Jake Muzzin lays out Corey Perry, draws a penalty and scores his first goal with the Leafs on the power play pic.twitter.com/TDMsOm8gcp
— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) February 5, 2019
Muzzin and the rest of the Leafs blueliners are going to have their hands full against a big, physical Columbus team that employs the likes of Pierre-Luc Dubois, Nick Foligno, Josh Anderson, and Boone Jenner up front. If the Leafs are going to keep up the physical pace with Columbus, Muzzin will have to be the catalyst much like he was against Boston a year ago.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) April 14, 2019
Muzzin with a huge hit on Pastrnak pic.twitter.com/e7U2rhyweB
— Flintor (@TheFlintor) April 15, 2019
While the Blue Jackets don’t boast the offensive fire power that the Leafs do, Muzzin will still be tasked with playing against their best players each night and how he handles that will go a long way toward deciding this series. If he and his partner (presumably Holl) can shut down the top line of a team that already struggles to generate offense, Toronto will be in good shape.
After missing 17 games with two separate injuries this season, Muzzin should be fully healed and ready to go when training camps officially get under way and he’ll again be called upon to be the defensive leader on a Leafs team known more for it’s offensive prowess. He’s arguably the most irreplaceable member of the Leafs’ blue line considering he brings a style of play that none of Toronto’s other defenders do, especially heading into the playoffs where the intensity and physical play is amplified.
If the Leafs are going to have any success in these expanded playoffs, Jake Muzzin will be instrumental in it. Playing a hard nosed, physical game and shutting down the best the opposition has to offer every night is a tall order but Muzzin has proven to be plenty capable of shouldering the load in the past.
That’s why Kyle Dubas went out and paid the price to acquire him. And what he’s done since is why he is, in many ways, the conscience of this team.
(Statistics from NaturalStatTrick.com,
Teammates & Competition Viz from hockeyviz.com)