EL SEGUNDO, CA — Last season, a lot went wrong for the Los Angeles Kings, who failed to make the playoffs, resulting in President/General Manager Dean Lombardi and head coach Darryl Sutter being relieved of their duties last April.
Defenseman Jake Muzzin certainly wasn’t alone among players who struggled last season—there was plenty of that to go around. But his struggles were among the most notable, and his -21 plus/minus rating, the worst on the team, didn’t help his cause.
Much has been made about his commitment this past summer to his strength and conditioning work, along with evaluating his poor season, and looking at what he needed to do, or not do, as the case may be, to improve for this season.
When asked what he learned from last season, Muzzin quipped, “that you don’t want to be -21.”
“Last year was frustrating, for me, and for the team,” said the 28-year-old, 6-3, 213-pound native of Woodstock, Ontario. “We didn’t succeed, and the numbers show that. But when you try to do too much out there, you just keep digging yourself into a hole, and we kind of fell into that as a team, not just individually. It all ties together.”
“The thing is that I was trying to do too much,” added Muzzin. “You get away from what you have to do really well. When you’re trying to do too many things, you’re not doing anything well at all. That’s a recipe for failure.”
“You learn to just do your job, focus on what you can do to contribute, and help the team win. Everything goes from there.”
As he did with every player, newly-hired head coach John Stevens made it a point to speak with every player this past summer. When he spoke with Muzzin, it was mostly about rediscovering his ability to be a solid defender, first and foremost.
“[We talked about] getting back to what made me a successful player, what made me a top defender in the league—re-establishing that, and what I have to do be that, and we went from there,” said Muzzin. “I have to be a strong defender first, there’s no question.”
That begs the question: What does Muzzin need to do to be a strong defender?
“Sealing guys on the wall, stopping plays, being accountable, being a guy [who plays] well every night to give us a chance to win,” he noted. “Having said that, there’s lots that goes into it, but those are the major points.”
“We’re starting from there, and we’re letting the offense come from being a great defender, and being a leader on the team,” he added.
Although the Kings have played just two of their 82-game regular season schedule—things can go in any direction—so far, Muzzin has looked dramatically better than he did last season.
Oh…and then there’s that plus/minus thing. So far, Muzzin has an even plus/minus rating—he’s already ahead of the curve.
“I feel good out there,” he said. “I got some confidence going in the pre-season, and I’m still rolling with it. It’s definitely nice to contribute early, and help out. Those are all positives to build on.”
“We’re only two games in, but it’s positive and encouraging to see our team play like this, and for myself, to contribute,” he added.
On October 7, in a dominating 4-1 win at San Jose, Muzzin played what was, arguably, his best game, by far, in recent memory.
“It was a good game,” he noted. “I played a lot (28:15 time on ice). You’re into the game, and you’re just playing. You have no time to think or gather your thoughts, and that’s fun. That’s what you were seeing. I’m encouraged by that, and I want it to continue.”
“I’m a little more confident,” he added. “There’s a little more freedom to make plays, and just play, as opposed to think about making mistakes or not making mistakes. That’s reflected in my play. I’m more emotionally engaged in games, and wanting to win. I’m not saying that I didn’t want to win last year, or the year before. It’s just more so now, and it’s coming out in my play.”
But Muzzin has been an improved player right from the get-go when the pre-season began, and his better defensive play has led to contributions on the other end of the ice, as well.
“My offense comes from being in the right position, and playing solid defense,” he observed. “Offense just comes [from that]. There are natural instincts that come into play that allow you to be in position to jump into plays, and it comes from experience, too. You may have had an unsuccessful year, but you learn a lot from that. If you’re not learning, what are you doing, right? You can learn from failure, too. It’s a bit of everything coming together.”
A big reason things have come together for Muzzin and the Kings is because Stevens and his coaching staff have loosened the reins a bit, as Muzzin noted, giving the players the ability to be more creative.
“They’ve given us the freedom to do what you want to do, and trusting you to make the right play, and that’s not just for me,” said Muzzin. “I think you see that in a lot of guys in the chances we’ve had, and the plays guys are making.”
“You haven’t seen those plays in a couple of years, and it’s exciting,” added Muzzin. “I get excited when I see a guy go out of his comfort zone to make a play, and it works. He gains confidence from that, and you gain trust from that. That’s a recipe for success.”
As alluded to earlier, the Kings are just two games into the regular season, so it’s way too early to reach any reliable conclusions about them yet. That said, so far, whatever Muzzin and the Kings have put into that recipe looks like it just might be awfully tasty.
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin (right), shown here with forward Trevor Lewis, during a recent practice session. Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
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