After the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 4-3 overtime loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday night, much was made of Jake Muzzin’s candid comments about his team being sloppy and simply not good enough defensively.
That’s because the 30-year-old rarely speaks to the media in any context, and his words sounded pretty clearly like a challenge for his teammates to be better.
“We’ve got to put together a full 60 of hard work and playing the right way,” he told assembled reporters. “We do it in spurts, but we need to do it with a consistent effort through the whole 60 minutes.”
While he didn’t call anybody out by name, or really tighten the screws, the veteran’s displeasure with his team’s performance shone though.
“It’s a recipe for giving goals up when you take penalties and turn over pucks and play in your zone,” he said. “You can’t win like that.”
If you’re going to make comments like those ones, you need to have your own house in order first. No one wants to hear a guy who’s making mistakes left, right, and centre calling out the blunders the team is making, at least not unless there’s a healthy dose of “I need to be better” — a phrase that was conspicuously absent from Muzzin’s remarks.
The 30-year-old came across as entirely credible though, because he’s off to an outstanding start to the 2019-20 season. While Morgan Rielly has a higher point total, Muzzin has been the best defender in a Maple Leafs’ defence corps that hasn’t covered itself in glory so far.
On Monday alone, the blueliner earned himself two assists, making the kind of small plays that make him such a crucial contributor for the Maple Leafs. On Kasperi Kapanen’s short-handed goal, he did an outstanding job of transitioning the puck in the blink of an eye, giving his team the chance to go on the rush.
The play bears a striking resemblance to a clever transition backhand pass he made in the Maple Leafs’ win over the Minnesota Wild last week, where he dished the puck under pressure to open up some ice for his forward — in that case fourth-line centre Nick Shore.
Muzzin’s second assist on Monday wasn’t quite as pretty, but it did demonstrate his ability to pick his spots walking off the point to create offence. The veteran outmuscled Sonny Milano on the sideboards, made his way around the net and found Andreas Johnsson on a pass that seemed intended for Auston Matthews, to be fair.
Muzzin is thought of as more of a defensive defenceman, but he’s picked his spots for these kind of moves well this year. On Saturday against Boston, he almost found an opening goal by walking in from the right wall and dangling Zdeno Chara in an effort to drive the net.
With his heady play, the former Los Angeles Kings stalwart seems to show up all over the film, but there are also objective measures that suggest he’s having an excellent year.
Called upon to play a career-high 23:38 a night, Muzzin has a sterling Corsi of 58.8, his best mark since 2013-14 and his best Relative Corsi (+5.6) since 2012-13. When he talks about the importance of disciplined play he knows of what he speaks as he’s taken just one two-minute minor in 10 games, all while still finding time to inject physical play when needed — such as this solid knock on Justin Abdelkader:
There are other statistics that support the idea that Muzzin has been excellent so far. His seven points put him on pace for a career year in that category and his plus-five rating is the best on the Maple Leafs. That said, a wildly-inflated on-ice shooting percentage (16.9%) suggests those might not be the best numbers to look at.
Even so, Muzzin doesn’t have to be an offensive star to be extremely valuable to the Maple Leafs. Instead, he’s been stabilizing a flimsy defence group by consistently making winning plays night-in and night-out. The same can’t be said for too many of his teammates — and he essentially just said as much.
After an unimpressive effort on Monday night, it was a good idea for someone to address the gaps in the Maple Leafs’ game. Thanks to the way he’s been walking the walk all year, Muzzin was the perfect man for the job.
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