The consensus coming out of the Jake Muzzin trade was that it was a pretty steep price to pay for a player, but that Jake Muzzin was a worthwhile addition to the Leafs. In the time since that trade we’ve now seen the Leafs struggle, and we’ve seen Carl Grundstrom score in his first two games as a King. Should that change anything? No, probably not. And generally speaking defensemen always seem to take a little while longer to adapt to new surroundings. We knew the Kings were getting good pieces in the trade, and we also know that Jake Muzzin is pretty darn great, but let’s take a look at how good he’s been so far with the Leafs…
The above graph shows the Corsi for and against of Jake Muzzin throughout the 2018-19 season, along with the rolling averages of both his corsi and goals for. Around the 8 game mark of the season Muzzin had achieved a positive shot differential, and has maintained that throughout the season, with a modest decline occuring. It took until later in the season before Muzzin had a positive goal differential, and only after the injury to Jake Gardiner and the increased reliance on Muzzin while pairing him with a worse has his numbers declined as well.
In his 21 games with the Leafs, Muzzin has had a positive shot differential in 11 of those games, and had an even shot differential in another game. He’s had six games where his Corsi Against has been at 20 shots or greater, including one game with a season worst 31 CA. There hasn’t been a drastic increase in the number of corsi events since Muzzin has joined the Leafs, as he was at 35.24 events per game as a King, and now sits at 36.28 as a Leaf.
A staple of Muzzin’s usage on both teams has been that he’s primarily used in a defensive role, but most noticeable is that Mike Babcock is far more interested in having Muzzin out for faceoffs, although surprisingly the biggest increase is on neutral zone draws. Muzzin has been used in more of an offensive capacity, although his point totals do not reflect that as he’s seen a modest drop in G/60, 1A/60, P1/60, and P/60.
As strange as it is to consider the Leafs being a deeper blueline, a lot of the offensive drop off is likely coming from Rielly, Gardiner and Dermott being the weapons of choice, where L.A. really only had Drew Doughty ahead of Muzzin in that regard.
While Muzzin is arguably the second best defenseman on the Leafs, he’ll be looked to less for offense, and instead stabilize the seemingly neglected defensive zone. That might be where we see the drop in GF% Rel for Muzzin despite performing just as well in Toronto as in LA in that regard, and his strong High Danger differential relative to the Leafs should speak to him being a welcome addition.
Objecting to Muzzin’s partnership with Nikita Zaitsev seems understandable, a good case for that is that Nikita Zaitsev does not seem to be a NHL caliber defenseman. In fact, Zaitsev has been the worst partner Muzzin has played with out of his partners of 50 minutes or more.
You can definitely argue that the Fantenberg minutes were more sheltered, and you can probably make a similar case for Dermott, which probably means he wasn’t an ideal partner either, but with the return of a health Gardiner or a healthy Dermott, we can only hope to see a return of the Muzzin/Rielly pairing, which seemed to benefit them both quite well.
The fact that playing with Zaitsev is not only pulling down Muzzin, but not benefiting Zaitsev should be sign that it’s time to move on from this pairing. Given that 5 of the last 6 games has seen Muzzin with a Corsi Against of 20 or worse there isn’t a case at all for keeping them together, and perhaps Zaitsev could be salvageable with a shot suppressor like Marincin, while Muzzin could at least having a fighting chance with Justin Holl.
Looking at how Muzzin has done against top competition around the league, Muzzin has carried the burden of the elite workload compared to his teammates, and his shot differential suffers for it. In his time in Toronto, only against Nathan McKinnon and Sidney Crosby has Muzzin had a favourably Corsi, though against Johnny Gaudreau and Nathan McKinnon, Muzzin also saw his CA/60 fall below his average results.
Muzzin has also seen better results against Connor McDavid, Johnny Gaudreau, and Nathan McKinnon with Toronto than what he achieved in LA. And despite rough outings against Tampa and Chicago, Muzzin performed adequately considering the overall results for the Leafs.
Considering that it’s not easy to step into a new team and learn a new defensive system midseason, and go from a consistent partner to uncertainty and Nikita Zaitsev, it’s safe to say that Jake Muzzin has been pulling his weight and then some.
It’s probably not a fair statement to make, because if the Leafs didn’t add him they likely would have brought in someone else, but without Muzzin, and with the injuries to Gardiner and Dermott, we could have very well been living in a world with
as the defense pairings. For that low bar alone we should be pretty pumped for Muzzin, and when we look at the heavy lifting defensively he’s been doing for more of a puck moving blueline, it’s understandable that his numbers aren’t far off of what he put up on a far worse LA Kings team.
Next season Jake Muzzin will have the benefit of a full training camp with the Leafs. He’ll likely have a consistent partner, and unless there’s another significant trade, he’s likely to be the team’s second best defenseman behind Morgan Rielly. He also stands a good chance of being re-signed as the end of the Marleau contract after next season will free up money to make Muzzin a regular fixture on the Leafs, and depending on the cost and term, that will probably be a good thing.