Can Babcock, Maple Leafs get most out of Muzzin?

In my opinion, there’s really no question that the Toronto Maple Leafs improved by trading for defenseman Jake Muzzin. Instead, it’s a matter of: how much better does Muzzin make the Maple Leafs?

Without getting into the grittier details, it’s easy to look at this as a black-and-white thing: Muzzin’s a proven top-four defenseman (sometimes looking downright elite), and that’s the area where Toronto needed to improve the most. The fact that he’s locked up through next season, and at an affordable cap hit of just $4 million, makes the deal even sweeter. The Maple Leafs were even proactive in getting him about a month before the trade deadline, allowing Muzzin that much more time to get used to his new (and colder) surroundings.

That’s the thing, though: it might take some time to find the ideal fit.

[Kings trading Muzzin could be beginning of a teardown]

Lots of left, not much right

The Maple Leafs’ best three defensemen are all left-handed: Muzzin, Morgan Rielly, and Jake Gardiner. Some might argue that Travis Dermott – another LHD – may rank as their fourth-best option. (If not, there’s Ron Hainsey as the fourth guy, a left-handed defenseman who’s played quite a bit on the right side.)

In a perfect world, the Maple Leafs would have a balanced mix of lefties and righties on defense, but instead the right-handed options stick out like sore thumbs: Nikita Zaitsev and Igor Ozhiganov have their issues.

So something has to give. The Leafs have initially announced that Muzzin will pair up with high-scoring blueliner Rielly. That makes beautiful sense from a stylistic standpoint – Muzzin’s both a versatile and sturdy defenseman – but will it work out when handedness is taken into account? Maybe just as importantly, will Mike Babcock be able to stomach the bad that comes with the good?

Such a process may require some experimentation, and learning the right dance moves could make for some offbeat, awkward moments.

Experience on the right

Former Kings coach Darryl Sutter told the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons that Muzzin has “never” played the right side.

“Anybody who says he’s played the right side isn’t watching the games,” Sutter said. “He’s played zero times on the right side in L.A. I know they’re looking for the perfect guy to pair with (Morgan) Rielly. He might be that guy, but maybe Rielly has to switch to the other side.

“Some guys are better rushing on their off-side. You see a lot of left guys playing the right side but you don’t see a lot of right (shooters) playing their off side. It’s just the way it is.”

One common critique of Muzzin is that he’s been propped up by right-hander Drew Doughty (although others would argue the opposite), yet Muzzin’s actually skated most frequently with fellow LHD Alec Martinez, as you can see from Natural Stat Trick. Martinez had been the one who had played on the right side, and it sounds like Rielly will at least start off that way.

In a breakdown of Muzzin’s fit, The Athletic’s James Mirtle also notes (sub required) that Gardiner never really became comfortable playing on his off-side, so it’s possible that Babcock will be best off seeing which defenseman (Muzzin or Rielly) ends up most comfortable in such a situation.

There’s the risk that Rielly’s red-hot season might cool if he’s placed in a less-than-ideal scenario.

Babcock’s certainly familiar with these questions, even beyond his time with the Maple Leafs. Such questions undoubtedly came up during his Red Wings days, and also during international competition:

Give and take

In case you’re wondering, there is some data to back up coaches’ misgivings about pairing up two lefties (or in less frequent cases, two righties), rather than the typical, Adam Oates-friendly scenario. Back in 2014, Matt Cane did a deep dive to find such a drop-off, although he also noted at Puck Plus Plus that defensemen on their off-side also tend to see a jump in shooting percentage.

It’s all logical enough: it might be tougher to make breakout passes/exit your zone with two lefties, yet there are certain one-timer opportunities that could also sprout up for the defenseman on that off-side.

Some of this stuff might make your brain hurt a bit, but the bottom line is that the Maple Leafs look stronger in their top four with Muzzin replacing one of Hainsey or Zaitsev, and they probably look a lot stronger.

Interestingly, the Maple Leafs’ situation really isn’t that much different from their rivals in Tampa Bay, either.

If you look at the Lightning’s top defensemen, most of them are LHD: Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, and as he progresses and earns Jon Cooper’s trust, Mikhail Sergachev. That’s especially true if Anton Stralman‘s lost a few steps, and since Dan Girardi‘s not really the sort of defenseman you want playing big minutes against the Marners and Matthews of the world.

For all we know, Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas might even have another trick up his sleeve, such as landing potential RHD and trade target Dougie Hamilton, although that would be quite the trick considering Toronto’s limited cap space.

Either way, having “too many” strong, left-handed defensemen sure beats not having enough.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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