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Buzzin Over Muzzin

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings
Jake Muzzin
Jake Muzzin had a bumpy junior hockey career, a frustrating ride full of fits and starts, but it seems as though his path to the NHL might be smoothing out considerably.

Signed by the Kings in January as an undrafted free agent, Muzzin recently finished a fantastic final junior season, one that ended with him being named the best defenseman of the Ontario Hockey League. Muzzin is now making a major contribution for the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs, who are playing in the Eastern Conference Finals.

It has been a remarkable one-year turnaround for Muzzin, a 21-year-old, 6-foot-2, 216-pound defenseman who is five years removed from major back surgery and less than one year away from the disappointment of being passed over in the NHL Draft.

Muzzin has already drawn strong praise for his limited time with the Monarchs, and there are already whispers that Muzzin might have an outside shot at making the Kings’ roster next season, if things go well for him in the summer and during training camp.

"Based on what I've seen, he's going to be a fantastic player," Monarchs coach Mark Morris said. "He has a big, thick body. He gets around the ice very well. He has excellent stick position. He plays within himself. He makes great decisions, reading the play on both sides of the puck.

"He can outlet it. He can hold it. He knows when to get rid of it. He kind of reminds me of a young Scott Stevens type, minus the real intimidating presence. I think that, as his confidence grows, he will be more physical, but in the early going, he just presents himself as a big, thick, strong kid that has soft hands and good vision."

Asked which player he attempts to model his game after, Muzzin picked Nashville defenseman Shea Weber, a strong two-way defenseman, which is exactly what Muzzin showed himself to be this season for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.

In 64 games, Muzzin had 15 goals and 52 assists. In his previous 166 games combined at the junior level, Muzzin had totaled 13 goals and 38 assists.

"I worry about my own end first," Muzzin said, "and then if there's a chance to jump in the rush, I like to get involved myself offensively as well. I guess you would say I'm a bigger guy, so I like to play physical. Playing physical is my game."

What led to the sudden turnaround in Muzzin’s game this season, one that had many NHL scouts sniffing around Muzzin at Greyhound games this season? Actually, the turnaround wasn’t sudden at all, but was more than four years in the making.

Drafted by the Greyhounds at age 16, from his hometown of Woodstock, Ontario, Muzzin missed his entire first year of junior after tests revealed two herniated discs in Muzzin’s back, a condition that ultimately required surgery and months of recovery.

At a time when young hockey players start to draw major attention from NHL teams, Muzzin had to sit and watch, far from home and full of disappointment at his situation.

"Going through the first year of being hurt, and not being able to play, obviously you're frustrated because you can't play and you're in pain," Muzzin said. "But you have to stay positive and know that you can make a recovery and be back playing. My family helped me out a lot, because I was a 16-year-old away from home, not playing and being hurt, so my family helped me out a lot and that kept me positive."

Muzzin missed half of his second junior season as well, but had enough potential that he was drafted in the fifth round by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2007.

NHL teams have two years, after drafting a player, to sign the player before he goes back into the draft. Muzzin stayed healthy, and played 60-plus games in the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons, but didn’t show enough to get a contract call from the Penguins.

Muzzin’s phone didn’t ring during the 2009 draft either, meaning that he was on his own, an unrestricted free agent. Muzzin signed an amateur-tryout agreement with Nashville before the 2009 training camp, but was cut and decided to return to Sault Ste. Marie for his final, "overage" year as a junior player. That’s when Muzzin emerged.

Playing big minutes, in all situations, Muzzin became a force at both ends of the ice.

"It was finally getting healthy and getting back into my routine and playing," Muzzin said of the difference this season. "The year before this year, we had a bad year but I played a lot and I got back into the way things go. When you're young, you don't play that much, so I got to play in all situations, power play and penalty kill, and then this year I just put it all together and broke out and had a good year for myself."

Ignored by all 30 NHL teams in the draft just a few months earlier, Muzzin started hearing from NHL teams that were interested in offering him a contract.

The Kings, already familiar with two of Muzzin’s former teammates, Wayne Simmonds and Andrew Campbell -- drafted by the Kings in 2007 and 2008, respectively -- kept close tabs on Muzzin, and Muzzin signed an entry-level contract in January.

"They were calling me a lot, so it made it seem like they really wanted me," Muzzin said, "whereas other teams would call, and I would call back and it would be a day or two before I talked to them. Also, I knew, through some other players, that Manchester was a good place to develop and that L.A. has a good development program for their young players. So those were the keys, and it also helps when you know a couple people in the organization, like Campbell. I played with Simmer for a little bit and I kind of know (Drew) Doughty a bit because he's from my area."

Is it possible that Muzzin will be teammates with Doughty and Simmonds soon?

It won’t be easy, at least in the short term. The Kings might have as many as two openings on defense at the NHL level, but their pipeline is stocked with defensive prospects, including Manchester teammates Vyacheslav Voynov, Thomas Hickey and Alec Martinez, plus Colten Teubert, Nicolas Deslauriers and others.

Morris, who has had a first-hand look at most of the Kings’ defensive prospects, gave a strong evaluation of where he thinks Muzzin’s game is, in terms of NHL readiness.

"My comparison is, there's similarities with where he's at, right now, with Davis Drewiske, but with a little more polish," Morris said. "He's got the same work ethic as Davis, but he might see the ice better and just have a little more poise. I think it's anybody's guess as to when he's going to turn the corner, but in my mind, this kid is as poised and as confident as anybody we have here right now.

"He's obviously had great coaching. He comes in and really has an upside that you don't see too many times. For a kid to come right out of the OHL and to have the poise and the patience and the confidence he has, it's pretty apparent why he was chosen the OHL defenseman of the year. I think the kid is going to have a real bright future at the NHL level, and I think it's just going to take a little bit of time for him to get the quality of ice time that he needs to really round out his game."

It’s difficult to predict the short-term fortunes of a young player, particularly one who has had an up-and-down career already, but Muzzin’s stock seems to be on the rise.

Less than a year ago, no NHL team that Muzzin was worth a draft pick. This fall, might Muzzin put himself in position to complete his comeback story? Muzzin, not surprisingly given his recent past, isn’t looking too far ahead right now.

"It's important for me to have a big summer and train hard and go into camp in the best shape possible and give myself a shot at showing people what I can do," Muzzin said. "This will be my first time going through camp with a team that I've signed with, so I don't know exactly what they're thinking, but I'm just going to go in and give myself the best shot to do well. Then we'll see what happens from there."
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