EL SEGUNDO, CA — Last season, defenseman prospect Jake Muzzin came out of nowhere to make the Los Angeles Kings’ 2010-11 opening night roster, despite having playing in just one regular season game and 13 playoff games at the American Hockey League level in 2009-10.
Prior to that, the 6-3, 213-pound native of Woodstock, Ontario was a standout with the Sault Ste. Marie (Soo) Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) for four seasons, scoring 15 goals and adding 52 assists for 67 points in 64 games with 76 penalty minutes.
That was when he caught the eyes of the Kings scouts. The result: the Kings signed him as an unrestricted free agent on January 4, 2010, to a three-year, entry-level contract.
Muzzin was selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the fifth round (141st overall) in the 2007 National Hockey League Entry Draft, but had surgery to repair two herniated discs in 2005, and played sparingly in 2006-07—just 37 games.
Not wanting to take a risk on a young player who already had major back problems, the Penguins did not sign Muzzin to a contract, nor was he selected in the draft by another NHL team. Accordingly, he became an unrestricted free agent during the 2010 off-season.
Last season, Muzzin played in eleven games in two stints with the Kings at the start of the year, recording one assist, before being assigned to the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL (Kings’ primary minor league affiliate) for the remainder of the season on November 23, 2010.
At Manchester, Muzzin scored three goals and tallied 15 assists for 18 points with 39 penalty minutes in 45 regular season games. In seven playoff games, he scored three goals and added an assist.
Looking a year older and more mature, Muzzin participated in the Kings 2011 Development Camp earlier this month.
“Just in his appearance, he’s more mature,” said Kings head coach Terry Murray. “You can see the growth.”
Despite the brief stint with the Monarchs at the end of the 2009-10 season, for all intents and purposes, Muzzin jumped straight from the OHL to the NHL, and, as one might guess, that was quite the shock.
“To come out of junior, right to the NHL was [difficult],” he said. “The guys are so much better. You go from playing with kids to guys who’ve been playing in the [NHL] for ten years—it was a big jump for me. I learned a lot, and I’ll build as a player from that experience.”
“I just have to continue to improve,” he added. “I just have to take what I learned and consistently get better and better.”
Before he was sent down to Manchester, the Kings made sure they sent him off armed with some things to work on.
“We went over some video with [Kings assistant coach] John Stevens,” said Muzzin. “We [discussed] what I need to improve on, what I can continue getting better at, what I did a good job at, and to go down there with a good attitude, and stay positive.”
Some of that video footage was devoted to showing the young blue liner what he needed to work on. First and foremost was his positioning.
“Plays down low in the defensive zone—positioning is huge in the NHL, because if you’re out of position, they’re going to make you pay,” Muzzin noted. “Some of my mistakes were being out of position.”
“I’m glad the guys care so much that they put it all together and you get to see your mistakes and improve upon them,” Muzzin added.
The video also showed him the strong points of his game.
“Skating, being aware, composure with the puck, [building on those aspects will help him become] more confident playing at the pro level,” said Muzzin. “It’s a learning curve for me, being up in the NHL and then down in the AHL. But I’m young enough in the organization where I can continue to improve and, one day, be up with the big club.”
At 22 years of age, it is easy to forget that Muzzin has just one full year in professional hockey under his belt.
“Last year was my first year pro, so I learned a lot, on the ice and off the ice, how to approach the game, and how to be a pro,” he noted. “I just have to continue to improve on the ice and to grow, mentally, off the ice, and be ready for each game, each practice.”
“A lot of it is mental, because we play a lot more games [than he did in junior hockey],” he added. “Being ready to play every game. We play a lot of [three games in three nights], [four games in five nights]. Looking after your body, and looking after yourself off the ice, to be ready to perform on the ice, has been big.”
Muzzin said that he made the best of being sent down to the minors.
“It’s part of being a hockey player,” Muzzin explained. “You can look at it negatively—you’re disappointed going down. But you have to continue to grow as a player, and as a human being off the ice. So I went down there, had a lot of fun, and it was a good time.”
But Murray hinted that Muzzin may not have taken full advantage of the opportunity to further develop his game at the AHL level last season.
“The time he had here at the start of the year last year is always a good thing for a young guy like that,” said Murray. “It really gives [the player] a lot of confidence. But he might not have gone down to Manchester and taken hold of things the way I would’ve like to have seen, in the sense that you’re going to try to be the best guy on the ice every night.”
“But that’s part of the experience you go through, and he’s going to be a better player as a result,” added Murray. “He’s definitely come a long way. Here’s a player we end up signing as a free agent, plays games for the LA Kings last year—a big body guy with a big shot. He’s going to contribute in all areas of the game when he finally establishes himself in the National Hockey League. The commitment he has made so far is going to pay off for him.”
The Kings recalled defenseman Alec Martinez on November 23, 2010, sending Muzzin, as indicated earlier, back to Manchester that same day.
Martinez went on to become a fixture on the Kings blue line, while Muzzin was relegated to toil in the minor leagues. But if Muzzin was discouraged by the move, he certainly isn’t showing any signs of it.
“Marty came up, he played well, he deserves what he has,” said Muzzin. “I’ve got to continue to build and grow. Marty played in the AHL for a couple of years.”
With Martinez joining Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson, Willie Mitchell, Rob Scuderi and Matt Greene on the Kings’ blue line, and with Davis Drewiske as the seventh defenseman, Muzzin knows that even though his time is not likely to come in 2011-12, he must keep pushing ahead in terms of improving his game.
“We’ll see how my year goes this year, but after the year, we’ll see what happens,” he said. “I just have to keep building in the AHL.”
“You can see it when you play with the big guys [in the NHL],” he added. “Every pass is on, every shift is played hard, so you have to take that mentality to Manchester and do those little things that will help you get back up [to the big club].”
As every young prospect dreams, Muzzin cannot wait to get back to the NHL level.
“It was a great experience, and I want to get back there [to the NHL], that’s for sure,” he beamed. “I’m looking forward to the rest of the summer to get stronger, faster, and come into [training] camp ready to go.”
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