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Work in Progress

by Jon Rosen / Los Angeles Kings

The Los Angeles Kings were riding a swell of momentum in a divisional game against the Anaheim Ducks on February 25. After Slava Voynov had put L.A. in front early in the third period, defenseman Jake Muzzin received a power play feed beyond the tops of the circles from Anze Kopitar.

Muzzin saw an unmarked Justin Williams to his left and gave a subtle head fake in recognition. The slight gesture caused Anaheim veteran Saku Koivu to extend his stick into the would-be passing lane, creating a seam between Muzzin and the net. Instead of passing, Muzzin released a quick wristshot that beat Victor Fasth up high, glove-side, and put the Kings up 4-2.

“I just beat him, man”, Muzzin said confidently after the game.

If only his path to the National Hockey League was as easy as the release on his wristshot.

The 11th overall selection in the 2005 OHL Priority Selection, Muzzin’s debut with the Soo Greyhounds – a team located across the International Bridge from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, roughly seven hours northwest of his home of Woodstock, Ont. – was delayed by over a year as he underwent surgery to correct a pair of herniated discs in his back.

“When you move away like that, you want to kind of become part of the team and be a family with the team, and I kind of wasn’t feeling that, because I was never playing. I was never practicing. I was just kind of on the outside looking in. So it was tough for me to fit in and kind of be a part of things, really.”

“Everything happens for a reason, and we got through it.”

By the time he had returned to play 37 games in 2006-07, he was faced with the added variable of forging his own role and identity with the Greyhounds while returning from a significant injury and showing his best efforts night after night for the scouts in attendance in his draft year.

His selection in the fifth round of the 2007 NHL Draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins was based more on his ceiling than his incomplete accomplishments in the OHL. But Pittsburgh never offered him a contract, which added to his motivation to increase his training and off-season preparation.

“When I was first drafted there, I was kind of still figuring out hockey,” Muzzin said. “I played 30 games that year. I got drafted on ‘that he may turn into something’.”

He’s certainly turning into something with the Los Angeles Kings, evidenced by his 11 points, which rank third amongst rookie defensemen. Overall, his plus-11 is tied for fifth amongst defensemen.

“At the start of the year, you don’t really think about this…you work hard for it, and you want this role, and you want to be able to succeed at it,” Muzzin said. “To get a chance to play along with Drew Doughty – an Olympian, a Norris candidate a couple of years ago, a great defenseman – and to play big minutes, to be doing well at it is pretty special for me right now, and I just want to continue working and getting better at working every day.”

Muzzin isn’t the only one to feel the chemistry on the Kings’ top pairing.

“We’re playing well together,” Doughty said. “In the [Calgary] game[s], we were matched up against Iginla and their top line, and we shut them down. They might have gotten a few points on that power play, but there’s nothing really you can do about that. We moved the puck well. I think he’s good at finding the open space on the line, and I’m doing a good job of passing it to him, and he’s finishing. If he can keep scoring like that, I’m going to keep giving him the puck.”

Lest his recent production balloon his self-identity beyond his 6-foot-3, 215-pound borders, Head Coach Darryl Sutter offered a blunt assessment that called into clarity the essential role he’ll have to play to become a successful defender.

“He’s got to be a great defender to play in the NHL. End of the day, bottom line,” Sutter said. “There are tendencies that other teams have in terms of their forecheck, and top players, and he’ll get it with experience and with better training and better preparation. But he’s got to listen. Otherwise, he won’t.”

It was a message Muzzin was learning in Tuesday’s loss to Phoenix, a game in which he took three minor penalties, one of which siphoned off some encouraging momentum in the third period. There to reinforce the defensive message is his defensive partner, an additional voice under encouragement from the team staff.

“The coaches are always on me to continue to keep helping him with [defensive responsibilities],” Doughty said. “They want me to kind of teach him things along the way, and at the same time, the coaches are watching a lot of video with him and teaching him a lot of things like that. But he’s definitely picked up his physical game, and being that big of a frame, he can lay some guys out.”

Though he has three goals and seven points over his last five games, it’s the defensive maturation that will need to be refined if he’s to continue to be trusted in his own end of the ice and in high-pressure situations.

“That’s our job out there, to be strong defensively,” Muzzin said. “If the offensive points come, that’s great. You always want to contribute offensively and help the team win, but to succeed at being a good defender and shutting down top guys is probably the most important thing for me to continue getting better at and continue working on.”

Like several other young skaters on the Kings’ blueline, there’s still ample room for development in a results-based profession.

“Compared to other sports, and compared to a lot of NHL defensemen, we have five guys that are seniors in college,” Sutter said. “So they’re doing pretty good, but we’re trying to win games.”

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