Jake Muzzin

Maple Leafs defense with Jake Muzzin out one month
Getty Images

Can Maple Leafs survive on defense with Muzzin out one month?

1 Comment

A season of extremes continues for the Maple Leafs, as their defense must find answers with Jake Muzzin out about one month. Muzzin broke his hand blocking a shot, souring Tuesday’s otherwise sweet win against the Lightning.

Everything about the timing fits the soap opera narrative of “As the Maple Leaf turns …”

  • Toronto lost Muzzin for a month in the first game after signing him to a contract extension.
  • It’s also the first game following a trade deadline that mixed the good with the bad. On one hand, it turns out that keeping Tyson Barrie was wise, warts and all. On the other, GM Kyle Dubas’ critics will argue that he still didn’t do enough.
  • Oh yeah, the Maple Leafs follow up this potentially devastating injury with an enormous Thursday game against the Panthers in Florida.

Woof. Dubas is a different cat, so naturally he tweeted out this very Zen approach to dealing with the Muzzin news.

(If you’re like me, you’re imagining Dubas trying to meditate after being thrown under the bus by Toronto media and fans. It’s kind of fun.)

The Maple Leafs defense has been, uh, flawed for some time now. Subtract Muzzin, and put him on an injured list that already includes Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci, and you might feel very UnDude.

Let’s take a look at the tattered remains of a Maple Leafs defense that may resemble seven wild horses.

Looking at the Maple Leafs defense with Muzzin out

Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston and others shared the Maple Leafs’ defense pairings from practice:

Travis DermottJustin Holl
Rasmus Sandin – Tyson Barrie
Martin MarincinTimothy Liljegren
Extra: Calle Rosen

Do you look at that group as seven wild horses, or seven broken ones? (Don’t make any glue factory jokes, please.)

Long story short, this leaves the Maple Leafs with a relatively inexperienced group.

If you want a glimpse at Toronto’s confidence level in certain players, consider how Sheldon Keefe deployed Sandin on Tuesday. Through two periods, Sandin received just 5:27 time on ice. Once it was clear Muzzin wouldn’t return, Sandin’s ice time skyrocketed to 9:34 during the third period alone.

Dicey stuff, but what’s the best approach, Zen-like, or otherwise? What’s a good mantra for the Leafs going forward?

Accepting reality of the Maple Leafs defense with Muzzin out, and considering Panthers

Despite wildly different approaches and markets, the Maple Leafs and Panthers boast notably similar strengths and weaknesses. After all, they are the only teams in the NHL who’ve scored and allowed 200+ goals so far this season.

So maybe the Maple Leafs should embrace the perception of their most prominent, healthy defenseman in Tyson Barrie, and their perceived identity as a team that needs to outscore their problems, in general?

There’s also the potential silver lining of realizing that players like Sandin and Liljegren might be further along in their respective developments than Toronto realized. Interestingly, Dubas sort of touched on this during his trade deadline presser, before Muzzin was injured.

” … We need to see how our own guys develop,” Dubas said, via Pension Plan Puppets’ transcript. “In a perfect world your own guys develop and quell your concerns you have about the roster and that people on the outside may have about them as well.”

Both Sandin and Liljegren carry pedigree as first-rounders, and have produced some offense at the AHL level. Perhaps they can bring almost as much to the table as they risk taking away with mistakes?

Obstacles, and gauntlets thrown down on top Maple Leafs

When you dig deep on the Maple Leafs’ numbers, you get a more complicated look at their hit-and-miss defense. Either way, they need better goaltending going forward — even if that leads to awkward choices.

No, the Leafs don’t make life easy for Frederik Andersen, but he needs to improve on his .906 save percentage (his -4.25 Goals Saved Above Average points to some fault on his end).

Frankly, it might be just as important that the Maple Leafs show a willingness to turn to Jack Campbell instead. Through four games, Campbell’s generated an impressive .919 save percentage, going 3-0-1.

Of course, the onus is also on their big-money forwards. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and John Tavares have mostly delivered in 2019-20, but the team needs them now more than ever.

The challenge comes in balancing attacking with supporting embattled defensemen. Not hanging them out to dry for icing infractions would be a good place to start:

If patterns continue, there will only be more twists and turns for the Maple Leafs. Maybe they can end up better after facing all of these challenges, but either way, it doesn’t look easy, and might not always be pretty.

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.

Muzzin injury puts damper on Maple Leafs avenging loss to ‘Zamboni driver’

Nylander scores Maple Leafs win Muzzin injury
Getty Images
1 Comment

(UPDATE: The Maple Leafs announced on Wednesday that Muzzin will miss the next month with a broken hand.)

The Maple Leafs heard about it endlessly: they lost to David Ayers, their AHL Zamboni driver. Ayers received celebrity treatment, even appearing on “The Today Show,” while Maple Leafs fans gritted their teeth. (Then the Maple Leafs grimaced about Jake Muzzin.)

Tuesday set the stage for a trying situation following all of that. With desperation and overreactions in the air, Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas decided to stand pat during the trade deadline. If all of that wasn’t enough, Toronto traveled to Tampa Bay to face a Lightning team that might just be rounding back into shape as the scariest team in the NHL.

Yeah, it sure seemed like things were going to get uglier.

One thing that adds to the soap opera drama of the Maple Leafs is that they often surprise you, though. Instead of folding following that agonizing loss to Carolina, the Buds persevered, beating the Lightning 4-3 on the road.

Go-to scapegoat William Nylander continues to quietly have a strong season, and this goal was nicer than his summer hair was loud:

John Tavares ended up with two goals, while not-traded Tyson Barrie collected two assists. Auston Matthews set a new career-high with his 74th point of 2019-20.

“We did a lot of good things tonight, in terms of the way we want to play the game, to our identity,” Tavares said, via TSN’s Kristen Shilton. “Just staying with it and understanding that it’s not always pretty but just digging in, playing hard, playing as a group, sticking with it.”

Muzzin injury puts damper on Maple Leafs win

Pretty impressive all around, right?

Well, maybe … but we’re talking about the Maple Leafs, here. It can never be totally easy.

While the Maple Leafs grabbed a highly valuable win, there was some troubling news. Recently extended defenseman Jake Muzzin left the game and didn’t return after blocking a shot. Sheldon Keefe couldn’t provide a detailed update about how long this might sideline Muzzin:

Sounds ominous.

But, hey, the Maple Leafs won. They can carry something from that, even if the roller coaster readies more dramatic highs and lows.

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.

Maple Leafs keep Tyson Barrie, re-sign Jake Muzzin

Maple Leafs
Getty

Trade deadline day isn’t just about the trades that get made. Sometimes the trades that do not get made can just as intriguing and get as much attention. That takes us to Toronto where the pressure is mounting and the walls are seemingly closing in on the Maple Leafs as they fight just to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

In the days leading up to the trade deadline speculation and rumors were circling around defenseman Tyson Barrie and whether or not the Maple Leafs would move him on Monday. But when all was said and done after the 3 p.m. ET trade deadline, Barrie remained with the Maple Leafs on what was a mostly quiet day for the team.

The biggest move they made on Monday was officially re-signing veteran defenseman Jake Muzzin to a four-year, $22.5 million contract extension that will run through the end of the 2023-24 season.

Like Barrie, he would have been eligible for unrestricted free agent this offseason.

Barrie has been under intense scrutiny in Toronto all season after coming over from the Colorado Avalanche in the offseason blockbuster that sent Nazem Kadri the other way. He got off to a miserable start under former coach Mike Babcock, and even though his overall play has improved as the season has gone on he has still found himself in the crosshairs for criticism probably more often than he should be.

Even with his contract situation, trading him never seemed to be a realistic scenario that would improve the team in the short-term or long-term. For one, with Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci both out of the lineup due to injury the Maple Leafs would have needed to find another defenseman coming back the other way (or in a different trade). That would have been a lot of moving parts and shuffling of deck chairs for probably a minimal upgrade. If any upgrade at all.

As for Muzzin’s deal, he will be 32 years old next season when the contract begins and will pay him through his mid-30s. There is always a risk with that but it’s not an outrageous amount of money for a top-four defenseman that should still have a few good years left in him. With Barrie’s contract expiring after this season, Muzzin and Rielly are the only two defensemen on the roster with a salary cap hit over $2 million for next season. They also figure to get contributions from recent first-round picks Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren in the coming years. Both of them will be on entry-level contracts for the next two years after this season. So there is some flexibility there.

Prior to Monday the Maple Leafs acquired goalie Jack Campbell and forwards Kyle Clifford and Denis Malgin in pre-deadline trades.

MORE: PHT’s Trade deadline live blog

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Kings face key stages of rebuild with trade deadline, 2020 NHL Draft

NBC’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Saturday’s Stadium Series matchup between the Colorado Avalanche and Los Angeles Kings from Falcon Stadium at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

While the Avalanche hope to become true Stanley Cup contenders, the Kings wonder how to reclaim that form.

The next few months are crucial for both teams, only in dramatically different ways. After looking at Colorado’s climb to contention, let’s ponder how the Kings are handling their rebuild.

Kings get off to strong start with rebuild

Experts already rave about the building blocks the Kings have amassed.

The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler (sub required) and The Hockey Writers’ Josh Bell both ranked the Kings’ farm system number one in recent articles. In fact, Wheeler ranked the Kings first with “no hesitation.”

They seem to be combining quantity with quality. Wheeler’s Athletic colleague Corey Pronman placed six Kings prospects in his top 100 rankings (sub required), with Arthur Kaliyev finishing highest at seventh. Five of those six landed in the top 50 of that list, with Samuel Fagemo barely missing at 53.

You can nitpick elements of that pool, as with just about any. But overall, it seems like the Kings are pressing many of the right buttons. So far.

Trade deadline provides opportunities as Kings rebuild

Rob Blake could accelerate this rebuild with deft trades.

To his credit, he was already aggressive in landing a nice haul for Jake Muzzin last season, and once again extracted a solid package from Toronto in the Jack Campbell trade.

Neither Tyler Toffoli nor Alec Martinez boast the same trade value as Muzzin, but maybe the Kings can seize some opportunities anyway? This year’s deadline market seems pretty shallow, so perhaps Blake may take advantage.

Who should stick around?

Looking further down the line, it’s tough to imagine the Kings shaking loose from Jeff Carter or Dustin Brown. Moving Jonathan Quick also sounds unlikely.

(That said, the Kings should pull the trigger if there are suitors, and if Carter and others would comply.)

Ultimately, your optimism may vary regarding the futures for veteran stars Kopitar (32, $10M AAV through 2023-24) and Doughty (30, $11M AAV through 2026-27). Actually, go ahead and take a moment to wince at those contracts. That’s a natural reaction.

There’s only so much the Kings can do about the aging curve, at least since they already signed the extensions. The Kings could at least take steps to be proactive, though, with hopes that Doughty and/or Kopitar can still help out once the prospects (hopefully) bloom.

Right now, Doughty is averaging almost 26 minutes of ice time per game (25:56) while Kopitar is logging almost 21 (20:46). With the Kings far out of contention, I must ask … why would you run them into the ground? Wouldn’t it be wiser to take measures to keep them fresher for 2020-21 and beyond?

That’s where Todd McLellan creates an interesting dialogue. On one hand, there’s evidence that he’s a good or even very good coach, including in Hockey Viz’s breakdowns. That data argues that McLellan positively impacts his teams on both ends, especially lately:

McLellan HockeyViz

The Kings can’t judge their coach based on structure alone, though. McLellan received some criticism for how he handled young players like Jesse Puljujarvi in Edmonton, so Los Angeles must be wary about McLellan’s development impact.

If McLellan can’t be convinced to scale down minutes for the likes of Doughty and Kopitar (at least after the deadline, in particular), then that’s a contextual problem, too.

Kings need some lottery ball luck for next phase of rebuild

Right now, the Kings rank as the worst team in the West, and second worst in the NHL. The Senators could sink below the Kings and grab the second-best lottery odds:

via NHL.com

Shrewd moves propel rebuilds forward, but luck is crucial, too. As excited as people are about their prospects, the Kings’ rebuild could swing based on getting the chance to draft Alexis Lafreniere, landing another blue-chipper like Quinton Byfield, or slipping just out of the truly elite range.

[Mock Draft for 2020; prospect rankings heading into the season]

Up to this point, the Kings are doing a good job “making their own luck.” Even so, the trade deadline and 2020 NHL Draft represent the biggest make-or-break moments of all.

Kenny Albert, Eddie Olczyk, and Brian Boucher will call the matchup. On-site studio coverage at Air Force Academy will feature Kathryn Tappen hosting alongside analyst Patrick Sharp and reporter Rutledge Wood.

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.

Maple Leafs’ defense gets some help with Muzzin return

Maple Leafs
Getty
1 Comment

Finally some good news for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ defense.

The team announced on Monday that it has activated defenseman Jake Muzzin from injured reserve ahead of their game against the Nashville Predators.

Muzzin, 31, has not played since Dec. 27 due to a foot injury.

He is one of the Maple Leafs’ best defensive players, and it is not a coincidence that the team struggled in his absence, winning just four of the 10 games. When combined with the recent injury to Morgan Rielly it left the Maple Leafs without two of their top-three defensemen. That is going to be a problem for any team, but especially one that is already lacking defensively even when it is fully healthy.

Muzzin is one of the 10 players we identified as being able to play a big role in the second half playoff race.

His return comes at a pretty good time for a Maple Leafs team that still has a lot of work to do in the second half if it is going to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Even with their improved play under new coach Sheldon Keefe (the league’s sixth-best record since Keefe took over) they still enter Monday’s game four points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They do have a little bit of an opportunity to make some noise over the next couple of weeks as only four of the next 11 games come against teams currently in a playoff position. One of those games is against the Florida Panthers, the team directly above them in the Atlantic Division standings.

The Maple Leafs acquired Muzzin exactly one year ago from the Los Angeles Kings. He is eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season, but said on Monday he would love to re-sign with the Maple Leafs.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.