EL SEGUNDO, CA — Although Los Angeles Kings rookie goaltender Martin Jones’ dazzling feats in goal have dominated the headlines in recent days, another player is garnering significant attention as well.
In fact, following the Kings’ practice on December 20, a few members of the local media talked about this particular player, extolling his virtues.
Prior to the Kings’ 3-2 shootout victory over the Colorado Avalanche on December 21, scouts for other National Hockey League teams—all regulars at Staples Center—could be heard in the press elevator, raving about that same player.
After the Kings’ optional skate on December 22, assistant general manager Rob Blake noticed that player speaking with yours truly. After Blake walked past, he yelled back, “did you see his first shift again last night? That’s three games in a row!”
If you haven’t already guessed, the subject of all that extra attention and praise is 24-year-old, 6-3, 214-pound defenseman Jake Muzzin, who has, in a rather noticeable manner, stepped up his game.
All one has to do is look at replays of the Kings’ last three games to understand what the scouts, media, and Blake were talking about.
Already known for what he can do with the puck from the offensive blue line, Muzzin has been a standout, especially in the defensive zone, and in terms of his physical play. One could also make a strong case for him having played the best game of his NHL career in a 4-1 win over the San Jose Sharks on December 19.
Muzzin insists that little has changed, except for his confidence.
“I’m the same guy I was the whole year,” said the native of Woodstock, Ontario, who was signed by the Kings as an unrestricted free agent on January 4, 2010. “I’m just feeling good out there. Drew [Doughty] and I are having a lot of fun playing. When you’re having fun, and you’re confident, your play will show that.”
What is most noticeable about Muzzin’s play, besides some big hits in his last few games, is that he is now showing virtually no hesitation in his game, which is generally a sign that a young player has taken a huge step forward in his development into a bona fide NHL player.
“When you’re confident, and I understand the NHL a little better now, and I’m more comfortable—maybe before, I was a little scared to make mistakes,” Muzzin explained.
Something coaches often say is that players must “read and react.” But for most young players, it’s often, “read, think and react.” In other words, they second-guess themselves because, as Muzzin alluded to, they fear making mistakes. After all, the last thing a young player wants to do is raise the ire of their coaches, or worse, being sent to the minor leagues. As a result, they hesitate. But all that usually does is give opponents an extra half-second, which is all most NHL players need to beat you.
Muzzin’s recent play seems to indicate that he has learned that lesson.
“Now, I trust my instincts,” Muzzin stressed. “Mistakes are going to happen, no matter what, so just play your game, and trust your skills.”
A major reason for Muzzin’s marked improvement is that he is now paired with star defenseman Drew Doughty.
“He’s a great player,” said Muzzin. “He makes whomever he’s playing with better. We’re confident together, and we’re having fun. He makes plays, and we’re reading off each other, trying new stuff, keeping the game exciting.”
“He’s such a great defender, and great offensively, I’m not scared to make a play, or make a mistake, because I know Drew’s back there,” added Muzzin. “I hope he feels the same.”
But as well as the two have played lately, there is always room for improvement.
“We still can get a lot better in our own zone, and breaking out [from the defensive zone],” Muzzin noted. “But for the most part, you’re seeing two confident guys playing.”
“It’s fun to play when you’re winning,” Muzzin added. “With Drew and I together, we’ve had some success. But we’ve got to get better. Good teams get better when they’re winning, and we’ve got to continue to do that.”
Playing at a level not seen from him before, and with the Kings tearing up the NHL over the last six weeks, Muzzin was all smiles while talking about his recent play.
“We’re just having fun playing hockey,” said Muzzin. “I haven’t had this much fun playing hockey in awhile. It’s a good time right now.”
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