IN FOCUS: JAKE MUZZIN
Jake Muzzin was the subject of our first “IN FOCUS”, a new feature to our site that centers attention on one player for a series of games and breaks down his play, strengths and areas in need of improvement. Though Jake is a rookie, Surly and I got a head start by watching him closely both in rookie and training camp. Most importantly, we analyzed his play in games 1 through 4. Here is what we found.
GAME ONE @ VANCOUVER CANUCKS:
SCRIBE: Jake played the left side with Drewiske on the right. His first two breakouts were smooth. On Whiskey’s turnover, Jake was aggressive and took out the Canuck behind the net to prevent a potential scoring opportunity. At 11:16, he made a nice defensive play, the kind that Terry Murray has spoken of time and again. He played the body, not the puck, and got position on the left side of the boards. The play neutralized the attacker and gave him no place to go. Young defensemen often try to get cute along the boards or shy away from contact there. In the first period, some of his clearing passes could have been better. He rushed them. He seemed focused on hurrying the puck out verses making tape to tape passes. That was likely nerves. I was surprised to see him on the second powerplay unit on the left side with Stoll on the right. That showed some faith by coach Murray. He seemed calm. He made some nice passes with the man advantage. He didn’t force the shot when he didn’t have the lane. He certainly looked pass first. Jake chose the safe option and out each time and in both zones. There was no ego in his game.
In the second period, he made a couple of smart plays in the corners. Once again, he hit, pinned the opposing forward and took him out of the play. He didn’t look to put the forward through the boards but rather separated the man from the puck. Watching him in game situations showed me why he may have gotten the nod over Hickey. He used his size well and we all know the expression that “you can’t teach size.” He took away time and space. With just under 11 minutes to play in the second period, he pinched in the offensive zone and forced the Canucks to ice the puck verses getting a smooth breakout. In the third period, with 6:30 left, he showed off his stick handling ability. On the left side, above the blue line, two Canucks converged on him. Rather than panic or fall back, he stick handled around one and made a quick short pass to a driving Justin Williams, which created a scoring opportunity. He did rush a slap shot / one timer in overtime. Hopefully, we will see those less and less as he gains confidence in his offensive game to match his defense.
SURLY: Can’t say I disagree with you much Bobby. I will only add that I can look at this game in two ways. In one light, taking Muzzin for the young rookie in his first NHL game, I have to sing gleaming praise. Any malfunctions were minor and far between, but to look at it more strictly as just another NHL game from a professional, Muzzin tried to force some passes in the neutral that were easily turned over. Chalk it up to anxiety and wanting to create immediate plays instead of the safer dump-in.
All in all a very solid maiden voyage for Jake.
GAME TWO @ CALGARY FLAMES
SURLY: The Kings lost to the Flames and I have some unappealing words for a few Kings’ players, but Muzzin isn’t one them.
Save for two poor turnovers, Muzzin played his 13:45 of ice time very well. The most glaring bad play, which I’m sure is sticking in many minds, took place when Muzzin received a pass in the corner, hesitated and tried to spin away too late from an encroaching Curtis Glencross. It led to possession for the Flames and a good scoring chance. It was a play I’m sure Muzzin (can we start calling him ‘Muzz’ yet?) would like to take back. However, Glencross was an unstoppable force the entire game and the pass he received surprised even me as it was one of the very few times the Kings passed back in their own zone instead of moving it up ice.
The best thing I saw was that Muzzin showed the nastiness in his game. He violently threw a few Flames’ forwards against the boards behind Bernier. Several times he eliminated his man like a veteran. His puck movement was solid and smart, never getting caught on the wrong side of the puck. I’m starting to think Drewiske’s spot isn’t so safe when Greene returns, conventional wisdom be damned.
SCRIBE: I saw more physicality from him and attempts to get involved in the offense, though not successful attempts. He continued to struggle controlling the puck and stick handling through the neutral zone and to my eyes, still appeared to rush his passes once he got into the neutral zone. What struck me was that he didn’t have the same issues in his own end. He was decisive and accurate with his passes within the blue line. The moment he crossed into the neutral zone, that uncertainty crept into his game. I could understand why. Arguably the biggest difference in speed between the AHL game and the NHL game is the neutral zone. The puck transitions from offense to defense and visa versa so much faster in this league. He again played the hit and pin style of coach Murray very well. He took the man over the puck and on one specific play, caught the puck in the air, knocked it down and controlled it while keeping the Flames around him at bay.
In the second and third period, I was impressed by his willingness to play 200 feet of the ice. He broke up the play on one end and immediately transitioned to offense. He never stopped skating.
Like Surly, I saw that Glencross worked him over on one play in the third period. He was physically taken out. Glencross was on a rush of something fierce all night. I would have liked to see Jake have the foresight to see that contact coming and either chip the puck out before contact or get his body between Glencross and the puck. That may be asking a lot from a rookie. With time, his instincts will improve in such areas.
GAME THREE v. ATLANTA THRASHERS (home opener)
SCRIBE: The play that left an immediate impression was with 17:35 remaining in the second period. Brad Richardson dropped a pass for nobody, leading to a semi-breakaway. Drewiske gave chase on the left, Muzzin to the right. Muzzin did not have the angle. The Thrasher (Thorburn) took a wrist shot which was saved but scored on the rebound. There is where I wanted more from Jake. He stopped skating (the first time I have seen that from him) and did not play the body even though by the time the shot was taken, he had caught Thorburn. Drewiske failed in the same regard. Beside that, Jake played another consistently good game. He still struggled on finding lanes for his shot and he looked rushed in the neutral and offensive zone but I noticed he was slowly getting better in these two areas.
SURLY: I thought Muzzin had a rough game. His physicality dropped a little and he seemed more nervous than the previous two games. Perhaps it had something to do with playing his first NHL game in front of the home town crowd. The Thorburn goal actually didn’t bother me that much. Muzzin could have saved the day there, but two other things happened that were worse than anything Muzzin did: Richardson coughed up the puck in a bizarre way and Quick gave up the worst possible rebound. Muzzin doesn’t escape culpability entirely however I was more disturbed by the hesitant play you speak about in the neutral zone. This game was the first one where I felt he was clearly outplayed by Drewiske.
All that said, he still had a reasonably good performance considering his age and experience. Something I think he can work on is keeping his balance when delivering a body check. I’d say he should ask Dustin for some pointers, but Dustin hasn’t been too hot at staying on his skates of late either.
GAME FOUR v. VANCOUVER CANUCKS
SURLY: What better game to finish off our first ‘IN FOCUS’ piece on Muzzin? Judy Muzzin knows her son well. She said:
“For me, it is a comfort thing. When I watched him at the Soo this past season, when he was getting more and more comfortable, that is where the points started coming up.”
After Jake got that assist on Williams’ goal, his confidence level went from a perceptible aura dotted on the ice to a blanket of pomp and circumstance. His body language changed, the plays off his stick became sharper and more assured. His play without the puck lost any hesitation. Even his balance solidified. Whereas Jake had been prone to getting a little goofy-footed when making or receiving a hit, his center of gravity found its stasis and the hits came more often with a more brutal application. He vacillated between being a Rob Scuderi and a Drew Doughty. By that I mean, in the defensive zone, when not making a big hit or breaking up a rush, he faded out of notice and became one with the system, as all defensive defenseman should. When crossing the opposition blueline he started creating more plays and keeping the offensive cycle going, making him remarkably noticeable.
It is ironic, from the drop of the puck I cautioned that this may be another rough game for Muzz (it will catch on soon enough). Off the opening face-off, Jake received the puck and promptly whiffed on a pass that began what would be 3 or 4 tough shifts for the Kings. The turnover led to a Vancouver scoring chance and the bad passing seemed to spread throughout the team, as it often does. Once the team settled down, Muzz began to refocus his efforts, the confidence building as the game went on and resulting in his first of many NHL points to come.
SCRIBE: A better game than number 3. He got his first NHL point and it was off a nice read. He jumped into the play and bee lined for the net. He picked up a loose puck on the rush. He then technically lost the puck which ultimately landed on Williams’ stick and in the net. At first I thought it was a drop pass but upon watching the replay, it clearly was not. The offensive instincts were apparent. That is upward progress. He had a big hit but also took a couple. I dig that the kid can take hits and bounce off them. Jake made a beauty of a defensive play with 2 minutes left in the second period. Not only did he tie up the stick of the hard charging Canuck forward who was cycling the puck, but he bumped him off the puck, separated the puck carrier from the biscuit and making a short pass to get the puck out of our zone, all in fluid motion. The only area of concern that I haven’t seen corrected yet is consistency with the long-range passes, both in our defensive zone and through the neutral zone. He has the 10 foot passes down well. Beyond that is where he needs to settle down.
I thought Murray’s comments after the game were telling: “He’s only six months out of junior. He’s playing really well. We’re showing a lot of confidence in him. We had a good look at him in the American Hockey League playoffs, and he showed the same kind of composure, coming out of junior, playing the next day basically, and playing in those playoffs. He settled right in. He didn’t show a lot of nervous play. He was making good decisions and he’s kind of doing the same thing here right now. This kid is getting rewarded. He put a lot of time in the summertime, doing the right stuff here and working out. He’s physically ready to play. He’s strong enough and he’s got a good head on his shoulders for the game. He’s getting a nice taste of the game right now.”
Surly: It’s always interesting and difficult to put the microscope to a rookie, particularly in such a short span of games, but I think that through these 4 matches along with training and rookie camp, we have a good read on the player that Muzzin is and will become. He uses his size well for a boy in a man’s body. He never gets caught with his head down, though minor hesitations on reads can put him ever so slightly out of position. His shot needs work but the know-how is there and as I’m sure Bobby will agree, his neutral zone play is an area he should focus on in practice. His next few games should be exciting to watch, assuming the confidence gained from getting his name on an NHL score sheet for the first time carries over into Wednesday’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes.
The big question is what happens to Muzz when Greene returns, which apparently could happen within the first few games of the upcoming road trip. While it is possible the Kings will carry 8 defensemen (including Peter Harrold) for a few games, it is likely that one of Harrold, Davis Drewiske or Muzzin gets sent down or waived. The seemingly obvious answer is that Muzzin goes to Manchester to play top pairing minutes with Hickey on the Monarchs. If Davis Drewiske keeps up the kind of strong play we saw in the last game against Vancouver, there is no way he leaves the roster. That would leave it between Muzzin and Harrold. It may seem obvious to waive (and risk losing) Peter Harrold, but there isn’t much point to Muzzin being a healthy scratch more than every so often. If Muzzin does indeed get sent to Manchester then he will undoubtedly be the first call-up in the event of injury. Though it would be hard to watch Muzz go, as I have thoroughly enjoyed watching his entrance into the NHL, playing against the slower, less talented competition in the AHL will likely further allow Jake’s offensive game to develop. I have my fingers crossed that we get to see Muzzin play at least a game or two paired with Greene, who could act as the same sort of safety valve for up-ice rushes that Scuderi and Mitchell provide for Johnson and Doughty. The other fun possibility of that pairing is it would give the Kings a very physical bottom pairing.
We’ll see what happens, but for now we will remain highly enthused about what looks to be a solid future in the NHL for Muzzin.
Scribe: The nickname “Muzz” is growing on me. I like it. I may start using it more and more, assuming Judy doesn’t object too vehemently. I don’t want to see Jake go anywhere. I look for one thing from a rookie defenseman – playing well in his own zone. The offense will come but to expect that from a rookie playing in the bottom six is unrealistic and foolish…unless of course you are the Anaheim Ducks, have a giant hole where you defense is and don’t have any other options.
I like what I saw from Jake in our zone. He was physical, smart and deliberate in getting the puck out. Defensemen have to first and foremost send the breakout pass to a forward’s stick before they join the rush. Muzz (dig it) did exactly that. Am I concerned about the neutral zone play? Yes. He has to get better between the blue lines. Having a safety valve in Matt Greene will help in that regard. Don’t underestimate the value of a veteran defenseman behind you when breaking out of the zone and joining the rush. Will he stick? If he continues to elevate his defensive game and makes better passes over 20 feet while improving his neutral zone decisions, coach Murray may not have a choice. Taking nothing away from Whiskey, Muzz brings a dimension and upside on offense that Davis currently lacks though I do agree with Surly. If Davis gives us the type of game we saw on Friday against Vancouver, this could be a toss-up with the edge going to Whiskey due solely to experience. If Davis falters, it’s Muzz’s position to lose.
WHO’S NEXT IN FOCUS?
Next up is Alexei Ponikarovsky but before we go there, what do you Kings’ maniacs think of Muzz’s play so far?