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Jake Muzzin’s horrible, no good, bad year

Are things finally looking up?

NHL: FEB 21 Maple Leafs at Canadiens

Jake Muzzin is likely to come off LTIR today and play against the Florida Panthers today. He’s playing the best team in the east in his first game back because the Maple Leafs really don’t have time to ease him into the lineup. He’s been practicing for a while, but until there was room to activate him, he wasn’t going to be given the green light to play. Petr Mrázek’s misfortune is Muzzin’s cue to re-join the team. If he plays every game remaining he’ll have 54 games played this season.

In the year Muzzin split between LA and Toronto, 2018-2019, he played 80 games. Since then, in the two shortened seasons, he’s played 53 each year out of a possible 70 and 53. That’s not bad for a physical defenceman, but of course, he’s missed playoff games twice over that period. How many isn’t the point anymore, though. Now the question is how much of a positive impact he can make.

How has he been?

There’s nothing more popular in Leafs fandom than opining that Muzzin is always injured. It’s the go-to for any player who underperforms while not being Nick Ritchie. And that might be the case. All players play through things, and Muzzin might have more going on that what we know about. However, his career looks like this:

Note that the second segment of the chart is per 60 minutes, so it accounts for the fewer games played. SPAR is Standings Points Above Replacement, so this shows you Muzzin’s personal contribution to team points. Zero is not a contribution. It’s not a detriment either, but you don’t pay over $6 million for zero, simple as that.

It’s hard not to see some team effects on that chart in Muzzin’s rise after he joined the Leafs. That’s common for any traded player who moves from a bad team to a good one. Beyond team effects, which the SPAR model attempts to isolate for, there is the issue that all XAR models are soaked in shooting and save percentage variation. On purpose. The point here is to see what this player has actually participated in on the ice. Some of those percentages are down to him.

The more cogent excuse, or explanation, for Muzzin is that he’s been on the ice this year for some really shitty goaltending. Even for a Maple Leaf. This is a dangerous topic to dip a toe in because intuitively it seems like on-ice save percentage is a thing a player influences heavily, particularly a defenceman. And they do! All players play a role in the results a goalie gets blamed for in that way. But that doesn’t mean a low or a high number can be said to be that skater’s fault. It’s not that simple, and what you’re really seeing is the luck of the draw on a player — what games they play (goalie performance varies over the season, as you may have noticed), and also how many minutes they play. A small minute fourth liner might look really bad or really good depending on their usage. A big minute defender, particularly one who plays his minutes in the defensive zone, might look like the goalie’s worst nightmare.

The bottom line is that on-ice save percentage is not a repeatable effect. Players are not creating it themselves, no matter how many mistakes you notice while watching. Has Muzzin’s SPAR been torpedoed by bad goalies?

The answer is: sort of. He’s not the worst, on the Leafs at five-on-five; that name* I’ll save for a second, but he is in the top 10 for watching the goalie fail to make saves a lot. Jason Spezza, on the other hand has the best number at .942. Muzzin’s is .895, and the worst regular player? Auston Matthews at .828. Technically, Mark Giordano is worse, but that’s on 92 minutes of play, so forget that.

*before last night’s game which adjusted those numbers a small amount.

Is that enough to produce that zero up there? No, it isn’t, and while there’s something to the idea that Muzzin can be doing okay, but you as a viewer are more emotionally impacted by goals against, and you grow to distrust him, that isn’t the full explanation for why Muzzin also fails the eye-test very hard this season. You aren’t busy crafting excuses for how bad Matthews is, are you?

Let’s forget the goals entirely, for and against. Mentally scribble out the first bar on this chart and tell me how it makes you feel about Muzzin?

This is the RAPM chart, so it’s isolated impact on these various segments of a player’s results. Aside from the healthy Corsi For Muzzin helps into being, he’s a detriment on the ice. He’s supposed to be “the guy” who isn’t a detriment defensively. He’s supposed to be the antidote to Morgan Rielly who makes it possible to have Morgan Rielly on the team.

He’s supposed to be this guy:

He’s not been that guy at all. There isn’t just one simple answer in a player’s success, and there rarely is when success deserts them. It’s entirely possible Muzzin’s problems have been a host of things:

  • Life was easier in the North Division last year
  • He’s had tough injuries to recover from
  • It’s Justin Holl’s fault! <— this one is false, Holl has had a good season
  • His pairing has changed <— he’s played a little with Liljegren and Brodie, but that’s not it
  • His usage has changed <— zone and leverage usage is the same
  • His teammates have changed <— not really, as he splits about 50-50 with Matthews and Tavares and plays about 75% of that amount with the third line both years
  • Tavares is struggling, and it’s washing over onto Muzzin <— this might be a little true

Some of those reasons are valid, some aren’t, but the truth is Jake Muzzin hasn’t been even as good as Holl. He’s the seventh most useful defender on the team, and he might not have been beating out Travis Dermott for total value before the trade deadline. For a big-minute, big-money player, this is a much bigger problem than anything a fourth liner does. But let’s talk about Kyle Clifford getting in over Jason Spezza because that’s a lot less scary than wondering if Muzzin just hasn’t got it anymore.

Just kidding, if you want to talk endlessly about Kyle Clifford getting a few shifts, you can, but the important things troubling the Leafs this year have been goalies and Jake Muzzin. If Muzzin can bounce back even to Justin Holl levels of contribution, that’s great news. If he’s his old self in the playoffs, he should get a breakfast cereal endorsement and a red Ferrari delivered to his driveway by a mysterious stranger. There’s a lot more room for him to go up than down, so I’m hopeful.

Anything in between Justin Holl and Jake Muzzin last year is almost a late trade deadline bonus. It might even be worth the goalie implosion that has made Muzzin’s return possible.

Go Jake Go, that’s what I say.