It’s been a while.
After a four-month hiatus, I’ll be contributing as much as I can throughout the remainder of the 2018-19 season. So let’s jump right into it. A trade happened this week.
What the Leafs receive
The Toronto Maple Leafs made their first blockbuster – for lack of better word – trade since acquiring Frederik Andersen in 2016, on Monday night. Whether or not Jake Muzzin’s star power is enough to label it a bonafide blockbuster is up for debate, but there is no doubt that the move alters the Leafs lineup in a major manner, and for the better.
Essentially, the Leafs are now able to move Ron Hainsey from the top pair, to the bottom pair with Travis Dermott. This not only gives Dermott a chance to play with a more sound D-partner, but more importantly, will shelter a 37-year-old Hainsey’s minutes at 5-on-5 play.
With Muzzin on the team’s first pair, it gives Morgan Rielly the chance to skate with a player of high-caliber that he has never seen on his right side – if Muzzin plays on the right (we’ll get to that later).
On a bad Los Angeles Kings team, Muzzin was one of the few bright spots.
Playing the left side on the team’s second pair (ATOI of 21:32), Muzzin met the eye test with 21 points and team-highs in plus-minus (+10), blocked shots (92) and hits (111). But his analytics show his deeper value.
Offensively, Muzzin led all Kings defensemen (with at least 20 games played) in Corsi for percentage (50.5), points per 60 minutes (1.09) and primary points per 60 minutes (0.7) – thanks to Corsica.hockey for that data.
However, the Leafs get their on-ice worth in his defensive capabilities.
When a faceoff was taken in L.A’s own zone, Muzzin was the Kings’ most commonly deployed defensemen, (38.35 defensive zone start percentage) this season. Despite starting in the defensive zone more than any other Kings d-man in 2018-19, his ability to exit out of the zone is impressive.
Muzzin is second to Drew Doughty (25.67) among Los Angeles’ successful zone exits per 60 minutes (23.71), and most frequently uses the stretch pass to do so (0.71 stretch passes per 60 minutes) – a method which fits in with head coach Mike Babcock’s system.
Note - This is CJ Turtoro's visualized data, but the sample size is fairly small, with just 11 games tracked.
I told you we would get back to the issue of which defenseman will play on the left or right side and, well, here we are.
Both Rielly and Muzzin will serve as guinea pigs from this point of the regular season and on. The sides – and possibly partners – the two will end up playing with, will be determined through a 10-week test period, starting from Toronto’s next game against Detroit, and then subsequentially throughout the regular season.
Both Muzzin and Rielly are left-handed defensemen (LHD) that have seldom played the right side in their respective careers. Similar to the Rielly-Hainsey pairing, Muzzin most commonly skated alongside LHD Alec Martinez, who played on his off side, in his tenure with the Kings.
In terms of who is playing where, nothing is set in stone quite yet. But when all said and done, it is a sure improvement on the Leafs’ back end to add a player like Muzzin.
Toronto’s wonderboy General Manager Kyle Dubas, not only bolsters his team’s blue line with the acquisition, but was able able to keep his current lineup in tact.
What’s in it for the Kings?
The return for L.A. isn’t as bad as it may seem at first glance. No, the Kings do not improve their current lineup by any means, but that’s the point.
But first, the two prospects and first-round pick that Blake acquired carry much promise.
21-year-old Carl Grundstrom, Toronto's 2016 second-round pick, could immediately slot in as a bottom-six forward in L.A. The gritty Swedish winger has talent and plenty of room to grow, but his ceiling – mainly due to his style of play – is likely a high-end third line forward, or a second-liner at best if matched with the right center.
A late second-round draft pick, Sean Durzi is regarded as a steal in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. The right-handed offensive defenseman has been successful so far in his overage year in the OHL (28 points in 26 games), but may take a bit of seasoning before he becomes a legitimate candidate to crack the Kings’ blue line.
The 2019 first round pick received will likely be a late one, but could serve as an asset to move up in the draft if L.A.’s pick isn’t necessarily where they want it to be.
General Manager Rob Blake knows that his team has virtually no chance of competing for anything this season, other than a shot at the No. 1 overall draft pick.
This is the first step of unloading talent and some cap space in attempts to securing a high draft pick.
The bottom line
Simply said, Jake Muzzin is good at playing hockey.
He adds the tangible defensive elements that Toronto once lacked on the ice, but also brings some pedigree to a relatively inexperienced Leafs lineup. (Not to mention, he is from just about 85 miles away from Toronto and grew up rooting for his new team.)
Could the Leafs make more moves? Maybe.
Toronto now carries an excess amount of defensemen, and I think that both Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev could be dealt – due to cap and free-agency related reasons, respectively – for a replacement level, second-pair defensemen (that is preferably a right-handed shot).
It should also be important to note that Muzzin is not a rental. He still has one more season after 2018-19 left on a very cap-friendly, $4 million contract.
For now, Dubas & Co. should be more than pleased with the move they made, while L.A.’s fanbase should be happy with how proactive their front office is in recognizing that the Kings are not what they once were.
TL;DR - The Leafs got a genuinely good defenseman they were longing for, while the Kings took a solid first step in a relatively unexpected rebuild. It's a deal which ultimately benefits both sides.