EL SEGUNDO, CA — Although the Los Angeles Kings came up short in defending their 2012 Stanley Cup Championship, there is a bright side, a silver lining, as reported in this space on June 17.
Another aspect of that silver lining is the development of two rookies, defenseman Jake Muzzin, and right wing Tyler Toffoli.
Both started the 2012-13 season with the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League, the Kings’ primary minor league affiliate. But when the National Hockey League’s lockout-shortened season began in mid-January, Muzzin found himself on the big club’s roster to stay, helping fill the void left by the loss of veteran left-shot defenseman Willie Mitchell, who began the season as a non-roster player due to off-season knee surgery, and eventually, was lost for the entire season.
Muzzin ended the regular season with seven goals and nine assists for 16 points, with a +16 plus/minus rating (led the team), and 35 penalty minutes in 45 games. He also contributed three assists with a -2 rating and six penalty minutes in 17 playoff games this season.
As a result of some up and down play, Muzzin was a healthy scratch for three regular season games, and one playoff game this season, and he could have been held out for more games, if not for injuries and coaches’ decisions on other defensemen.
Muzzin said he used that as motivation.
“It was just challenging myself, getting a little mad at myself,” Muzzin said. “When you get taken out of the lineup, you want to come back and show that you belong in the lineup. You’ve got to play like that in every game, and that’s something I’ve learned this year.”
“I progressed in being consistent,” Muzzin added. “[I was] trying to make myself a player who’s going to be in the lineup all the time. I thought I had a pretty good season, and as the season went on, I felt more and more comfortable.”
Muzzin added that the intensity and added pressure of the playoffs took some getting used to.
“I learned a lot playing in the playoffs,” he noted. “You’ve got to up your game. It’s a different season, and I felt that as the playoffs went on, I got better, and I started to feel more comfortable. I learned a lot from the older guys on the team, getting ready game in, and game out.”
“Overall, we fell short, but I learned a lot coming out of the playoffs,” he added.
As he alluded to, being paired with experienced defensemen, like Matt Greene, helped him learn and grow as a player.
“Playing with Greene helped me out with being confident, being a physical player, and not playing to not make mistakes—just go out and play,” Muzzin explained. “Mistakes are going to happen, so [I learned to] just go out, feel comfortable, and play my game.”
“The older guys, like [Rob] Scuderi and [Robyn] Regher—every game, they’re ready to go,” Muzzin elaborated. “Watching them play, [I] learned stuff on and off the ice.”
Greene took note of Muzzin’s improvement as his confidence grew over the course of the season.
“[Confidence is] huge,” said Greene. “You want to get on a roll. When things are going great, you want to maintain that. He’s been doing that all year.”
“He’s done a great job in developing the physical side of his game,” added Greene. “The offense came first. He’s a big guy, big body. I think he’s going to grow into that as well.”
Despite the fact that he earned consideration for the NHL’s Calder Memorial Trophy, awarded annually to the league’s rookie of the year (Muzzin finished eighth in the voting), like so many young players, Muzzin has a lot of work to do, especially in terms of building strength.
“I need to continue to get better, and make myself even more consistent, and more confident. I also need to get a little stronger and faster, and then, go from there.”
Toffoli’s road to the NHL this season took a different path than that of Muzzin, as the Kings were loaded up front with skilled forwards. Instead, he remained with the Monarchs, where he tore up the AHL, scoring 28 goals and adding 23 assists for 51 points, with a +20 plus/minus rating and 18 penalty minutes in 58 regular season games.
So dominant was his play that even though he missed more than a month of the AHL season, he still ran away with the AHL’s Dudley (Red) Garrett Memorial Award as the AHL’s 2012-13 Rookie of the Year.
He got his first shot with the Kings after being recalled on March 10. He played in eight games, scoring two goals and contributing three assists for five points, with a +3 plus/minus rating and two penalty minutes (these would be his final regular season numbers, except that he would play in two more games, and his plus/minus rating dropped to +2), before being assigned back to the Monarchs on April 19.
But Toffoli was not going to be back in the AHL for long.
Indeed, he was recalled again on April 24, and hasn’t looked back. He played in twelve playoff games this season, scoring two goals and tallying four assists for six points, with a +5 plus/minus rating.
After the playoffs, Toffoli talked about the experience of making it all the way to the NHL’s Western Conference Final after being in Canadian junior hockey just one year ago.
“Last year, my team went to the conference final, and you could tell that it was a totally different experience,” said Toffoli. But to be able to get the opportunity to play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs—every kid dreams about it, and watches the playoffs growing up. The tempo, the speed—it was so physical. It’s tough to lose, but we left it all out there.”
As he has often said about what it will take for him to become a full-fledged NHL player, Toffoli believes that he already knows what he must do.
“I know what I have to do,” he stressed. “I know what it takes to play in this league, now that I’ve got a taste of it. I want to be able to compete, every single night, play the best I can, and help the team produce wins, and get back to the playoffs.”
These words are similar to what Toffoli said almost one year ago about his development.
“[The Kings want me] to get quicker and faster, but they [haven’t] said much to me [about specific aspects of his game],” Toffoli said in August 2012. “They know that I know what I need to be better at, and I’ve got to get better at everything to play in the NHL.”
Apparently, his view has not changed much since then.
“I don’t know if it’s really changed,” he said. “It’s just going to take a lot of hard work, and everything. But just being able to play in games and get the opportunity—it just makes you want to work a lot harder. I’ve been working really hard since the day I was drafted, but knowing what it takes to compete against the best players in the world in the playoffs, I think you have to be a lot stronger, and a lot faster.”
“Everybody is so much stronger, and they finish their checks every time they can,” he added. “That’s the biggest difference for me, coming from [Canadian] junior [hockey], where sometimes guys would fly by you. Here, everybody finishes their check because they know the more that they hit you, it gives you bumps and bruises throughout the playoffs.”
Although overall improvement is important, Toffoli will need more muscle to help him in the battles along the boards and in the corners.
“Since I was drafted, [loose puck battles] was one thing they really told me to get better at, and I just think, throughout the years, I’ve been working on it,” said Toffoli. “It’s a big [part of the game]. They want you to compete, and they want you to win [those battles] every time, so that’s what I try to do every time I’m out there.”
“If you’re winning puck battles along the boards, you’re going to create offensive chances,” added Toffoli. “I think you can tell, not only from myself, but from our whole team. We win a lot of puck battles along the wall. That creates a lot of goals for.”
With left wing being the Kings’ biggest need up front, Toffoli could find himself having to adjust to playing on his off wing. But he is not concerned about the potential move.
“Whereever they put me, I want to play, and do the best I can,” he said. “We’ll see what happens next season.”
“When you get the opportunity to play, you want to do the best you can so you can stay in the lineup, and earn your ice time,” he added. I just want to be ready to go every time I get the chance, and play my best.”
Kings head coach Darryl Sutter also stressed the strength aspect for Toffoli.
“The plan is to get him stronger first, and then see if he’s good winger in the American Hockey League, or a good winger in the National Hockey League,” said Sutter.
Sutter didn’t forget about Muzzin, either
“They’re going to have to take [the next] 100 days [and become] stronger athletes,” Sutter emphasized. “For them to help us next year, they’re going to have to be better athletes. It’s very simple. They were boys that we could cover up a lot.”
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