Friday, April 12, 2013
Jake Muzzin comes into his own with Kings
By Scott Burnside
The molten desire to become a pro athlete in spite of any and all obstacles isn't necessarily part of a person's DNA.
Sometimes it has to be coaxed out of him.
Sometimes that desire, that commitment, is like a flickering flame that has to be poked and prodded before it becomes something that throws real heat.
Sometimes, as in the case of a player like Los Angeles Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin.
Named the league's rookie of the month for March, Muzzin illustrates that there is no textbook case for how to become an NHL player, no tried and true calendar for when the switch gets thrown.
"I always believed I could play here and be here," Muzzin told ESPN.com in a recent interview.
It's just that his belief was sometimes at odds with such characteristics as work ethic and focus, as well as things that are out of a person's control, like drafts and injury.
Muzzin has been able to reconcile all of those competing elements to become an important -- dare we say crucial? -- part of the Kings' Stanley Cup defense, even if he acknowledged that he has not followed the traditional route to the NHL, not by a long shot.
Born to blue-collar parents in the farming community of Woodstock, Ontario, not far from London, Muzzin missed an entire year of junior hockey because of back problems that eventually required surgery. He played 37 games the following season, in 2006-07, and the Pittsburgh Penguins saw enough in the big defenseman that they took him in the fifth round of the 2007 draft.
Two years later, though, Muzzin wasn't able to come to an agreement with the Penguins on a contract and went back into the draft.
The 24-year-old acknowledged that he was in a period when he wasn't yet a "full-time" hockey player or fully engaged in the process of becoming one.
As is often the case when players find themselves on the draft carousel a second time, no one took a chance and Muzzin became a free agent. But after a strong over-age year in the Ontario Hockey League with Sault Ste. Marie, where he collected 67 points in 64 games, Muzzin started attracting attention from a number of NHL teams.
Muzzin signed with the Kings in the summer of 2010 and played 11 games with the club in 2010-11, but for the most part he was consigned to the team's American Hockey League affiliate in Manchester for the last two seasons.
When he joined the Kings, Muzzin said he felt he had something to prove and that it was a conversation with his parents that helped get him to that point mentally.
After being passed over in his second draft opportunity, Muzzin had to consider what else life might have in store for him. He began looking at applications for colleges.
"But I was like, 'I do not want to go to school. I want to play hockey,'" Muzzin said.
Fine, his parents told him. But if he was going to be a hockey player, he had to treat it like a job. He was a man now and not a kid, they said, and he had to make the sacrifices necessary if hockey was going to be his life.
It was a message that hit home for Muzzin, who had seen the sacrifices his parents made to make sure he got the opportunities to pursue a hockey career.
"The drive was there," he said.
Still, Muzzin is a great illustration of the idea that desire isn't enough, no matter what the movies tell us. In fact, when he first went to Manchester, there were lots of instances where coaches and management had to push Muzzin to fully take advantage of his skills.
"I don't know if Jake understood how important it was to be at his best every day," Kings assistant GM Ron Hextall told ESPN.com recently. "There were a lot of little things he was kind of letting go by the wayside."
If the Kings were at a different point in their evolution, perhaps it wouldn't have mattered so much what Muzzin did or didn't do at the AHL level. Maybe they could have lived with the inevitable mistakes that young defensemen make as they try to make the jump to the NHL. But the Kings are no longer that team.
"Every mistake is magnified much more so than for forwards," Hextall said. "There's a lot of little things to learn. There's a lot of things people don't understand from the outside.
"Where we're at as a team, we can't afford to have those mistakes. He's done a great job since he's been called up, though."
With Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene, two key members of the Kings' Cup-winning blue line, out for the long term with injuries, Muzzin's ascension this season has been critical for coach Darryl Sutter in spreading out the ice time.
Most specifically, Muzzin's abilities to play on the power play and log quality minutes have given Sutter the freedom to deploy former Norris Trophy finalist Drew Doughty more often against opposing team's top lines while killing penalties as well. Muzzin's six goals are tops among L.A. defensemen and tied for first among first-year blueliners. In his last 19 games, Muzzin has logged at least 19 minutes in ice time 15 times. His 14 points are fourth among rookie defensemen.
"We were looking, we were waiting for someone to step up, and it's been Muzz," Hextall said.
Doughty, alongside whom Muzzin has played for long stretches this season, credits Muzzin for helping maintain balance along the Kings' blue line.
"Muzz opens up some things for me with those two big guys out," Doughty said.
Give the Kings credit for sticking with Muzzin, one NHL personnel director told ESPN.com.
"His progress was questionable, and he looked unstable early this year when NHL started," he said. "I saw him more recently, and he found the confidence needed because they kept feeding him ice time in important situations. Now it looks like they have a big body, smart D-man who can play top-four minutes. Skating is not pretty, but size and smarts are NHL, so he gets the job done."
Another NHL team executive familiar with Muzzin said there were similar concerns about his foot speed and mobility early on but added that he was always a popular player.
"He's just an enjoyable kid to be around," the executive told ESPN.com. "He turned out to be a marathoner rather than a sprinter."
Muzzin's father works in a local factory, and his mother works as an accountant for a local business. After a recent game in which Muzzin felt he hadn't played well, he was talking to his father, who told his son how proud he was of his accomplishments.
Talk about perspective.
"It's nice to hear," Muzzin said. "And it's nice to have the chance to make him happy."