COMMENTARY/ANALYSIS: Los Angeles Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin has been under the microscope this season, so much so that he has become the favorite target of many fans who are highly critical of him and his play. But his play during the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the increased responsibilities placed on his shoulders, are strong evidence that much of that criticism is unwarranted.
EL SEGUNDO, CA — If there is anything you can bank on when the Los Angeles Kings are in action, at least this season, it has been that social media will be abuzz with criticism of defenseman Jake Muzzin, who has been the frequent, almost constant target of the wrath of Kings faithful when things are not going well for the team.
Some limit their complaints to individual plays, when an obvious mistake was made, while others seem to believe that he is a catastrophe on skates, the worst defensemen to have ever picked up a hockey stick.
What works against Muzzin’s rather fervent critics is that so much of the criticism ignores or disregards his positive contributions. Some critics even seem to be unwilling to recognize them.
Doesn’t make for a credible argument, does it? Even worse, many seem to be unaware that the 25-year-old native of Woodstock, Ontario is only in his second National Hockey League season, and his first was cut short by last season’s lockout.
In other words, Muzzin doesn’t even have two full NHL seasons under his belt. Given that defensemen take a lot longer to develop than forwards do, and that he is not the second coming of Drew Doughty, a rare, generational player, those expecting greatness, or even much more consistent, solid play…
…let’s just say that the phrase, “too much, too soon,” comes to mind.
Also making things tough for Muzzin is that he has been forced into the number two defenseman spot, playing with Doughty, encouraging constant comparisons to one of the best defensemen in the NHL. Such comparisons are bound to be unfavorable in that context, placing undue emphasis on the negative while unfairly downplaying the positive aspects of his game.
Furthermore, Muzzin has been forced to play more minutes and in situations that a more seasoned, experienced defenseman would fare better in compared to a defenseman with less than two NHL seasons under his belt—there is a reason President/General Manager Dean Lombardi was looking for a defenseman at the trade deadline back in March.
Obviously, Muzzin is not the next coming of Bobby Orr. Nevertheless, as the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs have shown, he has improved significantly from this time last season, when he recorded three assists in 17 playoff games, with a -2 plus/minus rating and six penalty minutes.
This season, after 16 playoff games, Muzzin has scored four goals and has contributed four assists for eight points, with a +5 plus/minus rating and two penalty minutes.
As a rookie, Muzzin lacked the confidence to do much on the offensive end during the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs. But all that has changed one year later.
“Jake has been awesome,” said veteran defenseman Matt Greene. “A lot of guys have been chipping in scoring-wise, but Jake has been great. [His] shot is awesome. It’s nice to see him finding the back of the net.”
“It always feels good when you can contribute offensively,” said Muzzin. “Some shots are going in right now. You’ve got to up your play to win in the playoffs. I think, playing with [center Anze] Kopitar and Doughty, and guys like that, it kind of helps because they’re upping their play as well.”
But Muzzin’s offensive numbers only tell part of the story. Indeed, his +5 plus/minus rating stands out—his play in the defensive zone has taken a big step forward during the 2014 playoffs.
“He’s also doing a great job defensively for us,” Greene noted. “He’s a guy who’s playing over twenty minutes, playing with Doughty, against the other team’s top lines.”
“He’s been doing a good job at that, too,” added Greene. “He’s really come into his own being a great two-way defenseman.”
Like virtually any NHL player, Greene is not going to openly criticize a teammate in front of the media, so there is a bit of hyperbole in his comments. However, as he pointed out, not only is Muzzin paired with Doughty, his ice time has steadily increased in the playoffs, now over twenty minutes per game.
One reason for that is injuries on their blue line to veteran defensemen Willie Mitchell and Robyn Regehr, who suffered a knee injury during Game 1 of the Kings’ second round playoff series at Anaheim on May 3.
Even though Mitchell returned in Game 1 against Chicago, the injuries forced the other defensemen into different roles.
“You’ve got to adapt,” said Muzzin. “It creates new roles for some guys, but we’re all professionals. If an advantage comes up, we want to take advantage of it.”
“It pushes us to be better, with guys in and out, [but] I think we’ve responded well as a defensive corps,” added Muzzin. “I had to play a little penalty-kill and stuff like that, but I’ve been ready for it, watching those guys, learning from them.”
“I was excited for the opportunity. Obviously, you want to play in all situations, and I got the opportunity. I just wanted to take advantage of it.”
Injuries created added opportunities for him, but Muzzin’s improvement, especially in the defensive zone, has been the key factor in his increased ice time.
“He’s great,” Greene observed. “I think he’s always had a ton of skill. He’s kind of rounding his game, learning his game a little bit. He was awesome last year when he came up, and he’s grown a lot this year, too, becoming the player that I think—management saw what he can do, and he’s doing a great job of that. Everybody is really happy for him.”
“The defensive side—I think that’s the toughest thing to do, as a young defenseman, coming into the league, to really be good defensively, especially when you want to put up numbers like he does,” Greene added. “I think he’s really rounded out his game. He’s become a really solid defenseman.”
Although the injuries to Mitchell and Regehr were a factor, Muzzin’s increased ice time is evidence that he has gained more and more trust from head coach Darryl Sutter.
Despite that, as is typical of Sutter, he was reticent to praise one of his players, especially a young, inexperienced one, during his press conference on May 22. Indeed, he downplayed Muzzin’s improvement, choosing to send a backhanded motivational message to his young player instead.
When asked what he sees from Muzzin’s play now, compared to the same time last season, Sutter shrugged.
“[There’s] not much difference,” said Sutter. “I mean, probably the only difference we see in the playoffs is we use him on the penalty-kill.”
“Offense is just something that gets talked about the day after the game,” added Sutter, referring to Muzzin’s game-winning goal in Game 2 against Chicago on May 21. “If you win the game, then they made a great contribution.”
Sutter’s attempt to motivate might work. But the truth about Muzzin lies somewhere between his comments and Greene’s praise, which is pretty far from what Muzzin’s critics believe, and that gulf is widening with each game he plays.
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