EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The National Hockey League was far from Jake Muzzin's mind in the summer of 2009.
Muzzin was 19 and had just finished his third season with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League. He was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2007, but his career was set back by surgery to repair two herniated disks in his back that forced him to miss his rookie season and half his second year.
Muzzin was kind of like any other teenager, admittedly drifting into a sedentary state.
"Going into last year of training I probably hit 240 [pounds]," Muzzin said. "We didn't make the playoffs, and we were done early, and I kind of took a month off there and got a little sloppy.
"At that point I wasn't really thinking about the NHL. I was just kind of playing hockey and enjoying junior with my friends. It was kind of more of a fun thing to do. Later in my OHL career, that's when I started taking it a little bit more seriously. After I went unsigned, then I was like ‘OK, I got to really start bearing down here.'"
Muzzin whipped himself into shape and now has a surprising role on the Los Angeles Kings' blue line. Thrust into the lineup because of injuries to Willie Mitchell, Matt Greene and Alec Martinez, Muzzin helped the Kings weather the loss of half their Stanley Cup-winning defense.
He was named NHL's Rookie of the Month for March after his four goals, seven assists and plus-10 rating in 17 games edged Brandon Saad of the Chicago Blackhawks and Jonathan Huberdeau of the Florida Panthers.
It's quite a leap from one month earlier, when Muzzin's growing pains led coach Darryl Sutter to use the phrase "road apples" to describe his Feb. 2 performance against the Anaheim Ducks and bench Muzzin for two games.
Sutter not only stuck with Muzzin, but paired him with Drew Doughty and put him on the first-team power-play unit because of his big shot and surprising skills, notably his ability to freeze a defender with a fake pass. The pairings have changed since the addition of Robyn Regehr, but Muzzin's ability hasn't.
"When he turns it on, he's pretty dominant," forward Jordan Nolan said. "He was definitely one of the best offensive guys down there in the American [Hockey] League, and up here I know he's proven that can be that good also."
Nolan came up with Muzzin in Sault Ste. Marie and watched him lead the Greyhounds with 67 points in 64 games. Nolan also saw Muzzin go from a player who was "probably a little chunkier" to the leaner 215-pound puck-mover he is now.
Yet it still took time for Muzzin to come along. He spent most of the next two seasons in the AHL with the exception of an 11-game stint with the Kings. Following the lockout, Muzzin was invited to the Kings' abbreviated training camp but had modest expectations.
"I wasn't so sure," Muzzin said. "I wasn't playing the greatest in Manchester, and then to come here. But I believe in my skills and my ability, and I just had to believe in myself that I belong here and that I can do it. I stuck around and gained some confidence, day after day, and got a little bit more comfortable. My game's grown from there."
That Muzzin, 24, was able to fill in when the defense got banged up was a good sign in the long and short term for general manager Dean Lombardi. Los Angeles does not have a bounty of NHL-ready defensemen in its system because its best prospects are at least a year away.
Lombardi puts a lot of stock into intangibles, and the growth of Muzzin on and off the ice impresses him.
"I talk about kids that are so far from being men," Lombardi told NHL.com. "Look at his body. He's still not anywhere near his peak physical capacity. And he's grown immensely as a person … the biggest thing is his mental toughness that he's developed. I'm seeing a much mentally tougher individual than we did as little as 12 months ago. That's a tribute to him."
Muzzin's offensive contributions help offset a slow-starting Doughty, who had one goal in his first 37 games. In that sense Muzzin is channeling those freewheeling days with the Greyhounds, although he never really envisioned himself as an offensive defenseman.
"In triple-A, when I was really young, it was just fun," Muzzin said. "I really didn't think about it that much. Kids nowadays are starting out and thinking about what kind of player they are when they're still kids. For me, I was just playing and having fun. I always believed in my skills and what I can do offensively and defensively, and it's just kind of coming together."