Since before the season started, NHL media has said that the Toronto Maple Leafs defense is not good enough for the team to be a true cup favorite. That’s a harsh, but accurate statement. The Leafs right side has consistently been a liability for the team, and discussing how to fix it became the most heavily talked about topic in Toronto media.
With the criticism, came trade rumours. Nylander for various second pairing right hand defensemen became a favorite. Bigger names were also proposed; there was the Pietrangelo rumor and Dougie Hamilton’s future in Carolina was also questioned. Recently, names like Radko Gudas, Mark Pysyk, and Nick Jensen became the go too guys when discussing how Toronto can help their defense.
Jake Muzzin’s name was brought up but it was pushed aside because he is a left handed shot instead of the right handed guy the team needed. And yet, here we are. The former Los Angeles King, is now a Toronto Maple Leaf.
The Leafs acquired Muzzin without removing anybody from their current roster. Carl Grundström, a winger, was the only person the Kings acquired with an NHL contract. Toronto took him in the 2nd round of the 2016 draft and he began playing for the Toronto Marlies right before their Calder Cup playoff run last year. Sean Durzi is a right handed defenseman and was drafted by Toronto in the 2nd round of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. The 20 year old is currently in the OHL and played on the Owen Sound Attack at the beginning of the season, before being traded to the Guelph Storm.
Trading away future assets with these two prospects and a first round pick instead of a roster player show that the Maple Leafs front office sees this year as a year to win. So what does Muzzin bring to the Leafs that makes him so valuable?
To start, I should say that putting almost anyone else on the right side would help the Leafs defense. Hainsey, Zaitsev, and Ozhiganov are essentially replacement level players so adding almost anyone would be an improvement. Muzzin is expected to play with Morgan Rielly, which means one will play on his offside. Rielly played the last two seasons with Ron Hainsey which is a less than ideal first pairing. Hainsey is 37 and has been asked to do too much for the Maple Leafs considering his current abilities. Muzzin will be the first high caliber defenseman to play with Rielly on a consistent basis.
Muzzin has 21 points in 50 games this season which is not great but it doesn’t need to be. The Maple Leafs already have talented defensemen who can score in Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner. His point totals are also not helped by how much the Kings have struggled to score this year. LA is last in G/GP with 2.3.
As much as I love the idea of Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner playing together, Muzzin is probably the better option to optimize performance within Toronto’s defense. He is more well rounded than Gardiner and he should compliment Rielly well. Having a responsible defenseman (Muzzin) who is also not deadweight in transition and the offensive zone (Hainsey) should allow Rielly to take on a more offensive role (not that he hasn’t already) without having to worry about the disaster that could occur if an unfortunate turnover does happen.
Jake Gardiner has also proven to be successful playing in a second pairing role where he is the guy driving play. Whether he ends up playing with Hainsey or Zaitsev, Gardiner will be the leader on that pairing. I assume the Rielly-Muzzin pairing will get the majority of the tougher competition, which will put Gardiner in easier matchups. I do think he can thrive whilst playing against tough competition, but it is nice knowing that he will be able to use his talent in transition and in the offensive zone to exploit weaker opponents
Overall, Muzzin adds valuable depth and talent to the Leafs defense. Ron Hainsey can play lower in the lineup now, which helps to optimize his performance. Hopefully he will be used more as a penalty kill specialist than a necessary part of 5v5 play. In one trade, Toronto’s defense has been turned into a formidable opponent instead of a weakness that can be exploited.
I don’t care that the Maple Leafs “window” is going to be open for a long time. This year is one of the best chances the team has at the Stanley Cup, so they should do what they can, within reason, to win. Who knows, an early victory could lead to the next NHL dynasty.
Plus, another Ontario native gets to play for his childhood team, which makes me smile.
Header image from thehockeywriters.com