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Getting to know Jake Muzzin

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For most of us, he’s a guy we see twice a year tucked in the shadow of Drew Doughty. Now it’s time to meet him for real.

NHL: Los Angeles Kings at Toronto Maple Leafs Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

On one level, all we really need to know about Jake Muzzin is that he’s a defenceman who plays top-four minutes. But there’s more to him than just that.

Vital Statistics

Jake Muzzin has a birthday soon, and he turns 30 on February 21. For his birthday this year, he gets to explore the Toronto real estate market.

He is 6’3” and listed at 214 lbs on Elite Prospects, which is an interesting pair of numbers. While the usual commentators will talk about his size and grit and how the Leafs were totally missing that since Roman Polak became a cowboy, we should consider something. Jake Gardiner is 6’2” and 203 lbs according to the Maple Leafs roster this season. Martin Marincin is 6’4” and 213 lbs. Jake Muzzin is not “big” in the sense that Dustin Byfuglien is big. He does have reach and a nice long stick, and that’s no bad thing on defence.

Muzzin is from Woodstock, Ontario, just a little too far east for there to be any risk of him being a dirty Red Wings fan as a child, so we should expect there’s some Maple Leafs sheets in his past.

He also shoots left, which gives the Leafs an abundance of left-shooting defenders in their top four that is exactly equal to the number they had before.

Early Years

Muzzin grew up in the Woodstock minor hockey system and suffered a huge setback when he had a herniated disc in his back at 16.

He underwent surgery to repair the precarious ailment and wound up missing more than a year of action.

“For a little bit it kind of felt that hockey was done for me,” he said. “It was a difficult time and it made me not take hockey for granted.

He ended up on the Soo Greyhounds at 17, in 2006, which may have been the perfect place for him:

Jake Muzzin was used sparingly upon his arrival to the OHL, appearing in only 37 games in 2006-07 because then Greyhounds coach Craig Hartsburg, having once suffered a similar injury in juniors himself, did not want to set the talented but possibly fragile defenseman up for failure.

Kyle Dubas was a scout for the Greyhounds in that year, but he didn’t return as General Manager until 2011, the year after Muzzin left.

Muzzin did not have great points stats as a junior heading into his draft year in 2007, however, and he was selected in the fifth round, 141st overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins, and don’t they wish they still had him now? Maybe someday we’ll think that about Sean Durzi, too. This story gets worse for Pittsburgh though, because they just decided they didn’t want him after two years, and didn’t sign him.

Muzzin went back in the draft, but was not taken. He went back to the Soo Greyhounds and played another year at age 20/21. His point production shot up, and so it should — he was a grown man playing in junior hockey. Whether it was those points (he was leading the OHL in points for defenders at the time he was signed) or some deeper scouting of him as a player, the LA Kings signed him as a free agent in January of 2010.

“We are excited to have Jake in our organization and view him as a good prospect. He has a blend of size, grit, skill and competitiveness that our organization’s covets” said Kings Vice President/Assistant General Manager Ron Hextall.

Added Greyhounds GM Dave Torrie: “Our organization is very proud of Jake and his accomplishments over his 5 years with the Soo Greyhounds. To know what adversities he has faced early in his career and to see him grow and develop as a young man and as a hockey player has been very rewarding. As an organization we are proud of the role we have played in helping Jake achieve his goal of signing with an NHL organization. Our coaches have done a great job of working with Jake to help him become the player he is today. We all look forward to following Jake’s progress and anticipate the day he realizes his dream of playing in the NHL.”

He joined the Manchester Monarchs for one regular season game that spring, and a playoff run of 13 games.

The Kings

In his first year with the Kings at 21, Muzzin made the roster out of training camp, but only played 11 games on the big club, spending the season with Manchester.

Note: at that time the Manchester Monarchs were the Kings’ AHL franchise. That team is now their ECHL franchise, with the AHL club, the Reign, now in Ontario, California.

The Manchester teams of those years (featuring Rich Clune among others) were good teams, stacked on defence. He spent all of 2011-2012 in the AHL but was called up as a “black ace” to watch the team win the cup,

Muzzin played all the NHL games there were to play in the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season. In his first year as an NHL defencemen, he got all the way to the Conference finals with the defending champions.

In his second year in the NHL, he won the Stanley Cup. He had an impressive 12 points in 26 playoff games.

No one on the Leafs has had a career like Muzzin’s. Many of his new teammates have experienced an AHL team featuring Rich Clune and run as one of the best teams in the minor leagues like Muzzin did, but most of them graduated to team a little less solidly built than the Kings of those days. Patrick Marleau comes close, but it was a few years before he went deep in the playoffs.

But for Muzzin, the years since that cup win have been tough. More like Jake Gardiner’s early years on the Leafs than anything recent in Toronto. The Kings came back from their two cups in three years and have missed the playoffs or lost easily in the first round in every season since. And, as you know, they are one of the worst teams in the NHL this season. In some ways, Muzzin is coming into the Leafs in a way similar to John Tavares after a lot of years on the team he might have thought he’d play with forever. But unlike Tavares, he had that early taste of what a truly great team is like.

Team Canada

Muzzin never quite made the grade for the great Canadian Olympic teams, and that’s harder to do as a defenceman and nearly impossible as the number two ranked Canadian on your own team.

He hasn’t stepped out from behind Drew Doughty very often and drawn the attention of Hockey Canada. He’s been in the playoffs a lot in his career, but even with those years where he only played less than six games in the post-season, he’s only had one tour of the loser’s Olympics, the World Championships in 2015. He played with Tyler Ennis on that team, but no Leafs from that season made the cut as Canada won the gold.

In 2016, the World Cup of Hockey had Mike Babcock as the head coach, and he took Muzzin on but played him in one game only, preferring to run with Jay Bouwmeester to the chagrin of many, as they won the gold to no one’s surprise.

The Leafs

And now at almost 30, Jake Muzzin is here in Toronto on the Leafs. He’s donning a new number (8), and he joins a defence corps that is younger than him in all but one case, and a team that is like a trip back to high school compared to the ageing Kings he’s leaving behind.

Muzzin isn’t quite the superstar defensive addition that Leafs fans held out hope for. But he’s also a cut above some of the ideas many fans were trying hard to talk themselves into during this now multi-year discussion about trading for a defenceman. That doesn’t mean Muzzin isn’t going to be faced with towering expectations and massive media and fan attention. He’s not a John Tavares calibre of player, but he might feel like people are expecting him to be that.

Kyle Dubas got him almost an entire month extra to learn who the Leafs are and find his fit on the team, and he’s going to need it.

But he’s still the same guy who figured out how to come back from a missed season at 16, from being turned down by the Penguins, and then every other team seven times over. What’s a little pressure from the cup-starved Toronto fans compared to that?