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The Buzz On Muzz

by Doug Ward / Los Angeles Kings

It’s late August, and the Stanley Cup playoffs have been over for months, but Jake Muzzin is still playing high-level defense. A mouse has made its way inside Muzzin’s summer cottage in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., and the Kings’ defenseman is busy keeping the uninvited intruder away from an excited dog, all while conducting a phone interview in calm, measured tones.

No problem. Muzzin got good at keeping his cool under fire, multi-tasking, and knowing when to stay back and when to aggressively take control of a situation, during last spring’s Stanley Cup playoffs.

“Jake was as consistent as any player we had during the playoffs last year,” says Kings Assistant General Manager Rob Blake.

After keeping the likes of Joe Thornton, Ryan Getzlaf and Jonathan Toews away from the net in key moments, keeping a dog away from a mouse is child’s play for Muzzin.

Muzzin is nothing if not versatile. In addition to staving off mice, the 25-year-old Woodstock, Ont., native knows there is more than one way to skin a cat. His development on the Kings’ blueline has been a testament to variety and balance. Muzzin has never had a favorite player or role model, but instead says he tries to take a little bit of everyone’s game and incorporate it into his own. Maybe that’s why Muzzin is becoming such a good two-way defenseman.

“You do everything you can to make yourself a better player,” Muzzin says.

To that end, Muzzin has a clear-cut objective.

“I want to be known as a defenseman that is reliable and trustworthy and can also produce offensively,” Muzzin says.

He is well on his way.

“Jake is a two-way defenseman that skates well,” Blake says. “He is one of the defenseman we rate as a blend; they do everything.”

Muzzin raised his two-way game last spring and the Kings raised the Stanley Cup for the second time in three years, and the two events were more than coincidental. Muzzin was with the Kings when they won their first Cup in 2012, but did not dress for a playoff game. Being on the outside looking in was both a learning and motivational experience. Mostly, it left Muzzin thirsting for a Cup he could take ownership in.

“It felt awesome to be along for the ride in 2012,” Muzzin says. “I was there to witness everything first-hand. But more than anything, it made me want to be a part of it. I wanted a bigger role and missing out added fuel to the fire. I learned some stuff in 2012, but mostly, it added fuel to the fire. I saw how cool and special it is to win the Stanley Cup and I wanted to be a part of it.”

Muzzin spent his day with the Cup last summer in his hometown of Woodstock, Ont., a small farming community and the place he began a circuitous journey to the NHL. He was originally drafted in the fifth round by Pittsburgh in 2007, but did not sign with the Penguins, instead returning to his Junior team in Sault Ste. Marie. By the time he left The Soo, Muzzin was the recipient of the Max Kaminsky Trophy as the top defenseman in the Ontario Hockey League. Muzzin went back into the draft but was not selected, thus becoming a free agent with the ability to sign anywhere.

In 2010, he signed with the Kings.

“I chose L.A. because they were the team that wanted me the most,” Muzzin says. “They have a great developmental program and a good AHL team in Manchester and that was important, too.”

Muzzin is now practically a poster boy for the prowess of the Kings’ development system.

Nelson Emerson and Mike O’Connell (in the Kings development department) have spent as much time with Jake as anyone,” Blake says. “Jake is one of the guys who started out in our development system and made great progress.”

Muzzin played in 11 NHL games during the 2010-11 season and took the ice for another 45 contests during the 2012-13 campaign, but it wasn’t until last year that he began to truly make an impact. He was particularly strong in the last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, scoring six goals and picking up six assists.

His breakout was the cumulative effect of experience, hard work, and being inspired by witnessing the Cup run of 2012.

“It’s not just one situation or one game that enables you to break through,” Muzzin says. “I had built up my confidence over the course of the year and when the playoffs come around, you know you have to up your game. Everyone on the team knows they have to up their game and you look around and everyone is playing so well, you know you have to up your game, too.”

Being paired with one of the world’s top defensemen didn’t hurt, either. Muzzin says his chemistry with partner Drew Doughty has been immeasurable in his evolution.

“Drew is obviously one of the best in the league,” Muzzin says. “Having him as my defense partner was really helpful. We are good friends off the ice and that helps you on the ice.”

In the Kings’ puck possession system, the ability of Muzzin and Doughty to move the puck of their own zone is paramount. Simply put, if the opponent does not have the puck in the attacking zone, they cannot score.

“The key with Jake and Drew,” Blake says, “is that they don’t spend a lot of time in their own zone. They defend by not having pucks in our own zone, which makes them a little different in that regard. They make that fast breakout pass, move the puck well, and get it out of their own zone quickly.”

In addition to being his defense partner, Doughty sets an elevated standard that Muzzin aspires to reach.

“Drew always competes at a very high level every night,” Muzzin says. “You want to compete at the same high level.”

Along with an unparalleled puck possession game, the Kings’ recipe for success includes equal parts camaraderie and accountability. Muzzin says the players want to win for each other, and the team’s leaders set the bar high. That unity went a long way toward enabling the Kings to rally from a 3-0 series deficit vs. San Jose, and win three Game 7’s on the road last spring.

“Our ability to comeback speaks to a lot of experience and character,” Muzzin says. “Whenever we got behind, guys did not panic. No one tried to do too much. We stayed confident, and the big guys stepped up at the big times. The guys that had been through it before showed us the way.”

A sense of togetherness also helped keep the Kings hungry. Players who were a part of the 2012 Cup wanted those who missed out on that championship to experience the feeling; those who were not part of the first Cup made sure those who were, stayed hungry.

“That was all due to the leaders on our team,” Muzzin says. “We had a lot of guys that had won the Cup two years ago, but we also had veterans like Marian Gaborik and Robyn Regehr who had never won it. We wanted to win it for those guys. Then we also had younger guys that had never won it and they kept us hungry.”

Muzzin does not have much of an appetite for advanced analytics, despite the fact they are kind to him. He has led the NHL defensemen in Corsi ratings for two years running. Corsi is an analytic that measures total shot attempts, for and against, but the metric means little to Muzzin.

“I really don’t pay much attention to Corsi stats,” he says. Others do. Blake says the Kings look at everything, and another favorable stat is a indicator of Muzzin’s ability to make things happen; he likes to shoot the puck.

“Shots are a part of my game,” says Muzzin, who had 175 shots last season. “I am a shooter. If I have an opportunity to create offense, I am going to do it.”

This season, as he entered action this week, Muzzin had 13 assists (second on the blueline only to Doughty) and 17 overall points in 30 games.  He also had only 12 PIM.  Two of his goals came on the power play, and two were considered game-winners.

Muzzin and Doughty are known as defensemen, but there are times when you’d swear their job title ought to be “offensemen.”

“Drew and Jake together give us a really good offensive weapon on the blueline and opponents can’t overload one side of the ice,” Blake says. “Jake gets a lot of shots.”

He also denies a lot of shots, which is what the Corsi stat is all about. If you are like Muzzin that’s too advanced an analytic for your taste, common sense and the ability to stay cool under fire is another way to measure Muzzin’s development.

Those are the traits Jake Muzzin now routinely displays in most situations, whether he’s in the Stanley Cup Final, or in his cottage back home in Ontario.

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