Jake Muzzin addition forces Maple Leafs to shake up defence pairs

Mike Babcock, Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly spoke to the media about what Muzzin can bring to the team and playing as a pair.

TAYLOR, Mich. — They were making dinner at the Rielly household in Vancouver earlier this week when news of the Toronto Maple Leafs trade broke. It was Shirley Rielly, rather than her son Morgan, who got most giddy about the prospect of Jake Muzzin being parachuted in to strengthen the team’s blue line.

"She did her homework, went right online," Morgan said Thursday, after the new-look Leafs returned from their bye week. "I think the first thing she said was ‘Oh, he’s a left D."’

It’s a reaction that echoed across Leaf Nation, where a discussion about the need for a right-shot defenceman has been running on loop for roughly three years. It’s now become an active conversation in the coach’s room, too, with Mike Babcock temporarily filling that spot on his top pairing by sliding Rielly to his off side in order to make room for Muzzin.

That’s not how you’d draw it up if you were building a team from scratch, but roster construction is forever a work in progress.

Kyle Dubas did well to add someone of Muzzin’s pedigree without having to ship any of his top prospects or an active player back to Los Angeles in return. The price for any of the available righties — Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko, Brett Pesce, Dougie Hamilton — would have required the Leafs to cut deeper into their organization, getting uncomfortably close to the vital organs just as their window for Stanley Cup contention is opening.

Instead they returned to the ice for Thursday’s practice in suburban Detroit feeling like a stronger team than they were a week ago. Muzzin’s arrival came with a surge of excitement, particularly for Rielly. The new partners stood near centre ice after the drills ended and convened with assistant coach D.J. Smith, who handles the defencemen.

They also spoke by phone shortly after Monday’s trade was made and plan to keep the conversation flowing throughout his Friday debut against the Red Wings and beyond. Muzzin is adapting to a new team, a new conference and a new system. For the time being, anyways, Rielly is moving to a position he’s only played sparingly during six NHL seasons in order to help ease that transition.

"I’ve played pretty much my whole career on the left and it’s just comfy for me," said Muzzin. "I’ve also played with a left D on the right for a long time, too. Hopefully… I mean we’ll see what’s in store for us, but if that’s the way it goes then that would be a little bit more comfortable for me, yeah."

There is very little flash to his game, as Babcock noted to reporters on a couple occasions. "Anybody’s whose expecting any flash is looking for the wrong guy," said the coach. But Muzzin should help get the Leafs in transition, breaking up the cycle in the defensive zone and making safe, reliable exits.

He’s also going to get some penalty killing duty and may even take a spot alongside Jake Gardiner on the second power-play unit.

The 29-year-old arrives here with a sterling reputation as both a teammate and competitor, and has the shine of someone who has played big in big moments. However, Muzzin noted that he has a lot to learn following the first trade of his life and will be listening more than talking about the experiences gleaned during 50 playoff games and two Stanley Cups with the Kings.

There was a lot running through his mind after flying directly from Los Angeles to Detroit. He arrived at the rink early with John Tavares and Frederik Andersen, and had to introduce himself to virtually everyone before taking the ice.

"I talked to Babs and Smitty a little bit, just kind of going over some of what they’re thinking and what they want from me and stuff like that," said Muzzin. "So it’s kind of been a whirlwind of information. Hopefully over the next couple weeks everything settles down a little bit."

The reason Babcock chose to shift Rielly to the right rather than Muzzin is because he wanted to give his new defenceman one less thing to worry about. There’s no guarantee it’ll stay that way for too long, though.

For as reluctant as Babcock has been to tinker with defensive pairings during his time in Toronto — playing Rielly beside Ron Hainsey almost continuously since the start of last season — you get the feeling there’ll be much more experimentation in the 33 games before the playoffs.

Rielly seemed thrilled at the prospect of moving over to accommodate Muzzin’s arrival, but the coach expressed some reservations about doing it in the middle of his breakout campaign offensively.

"There was a guy, I think he won seven Norris’, his name was Nick [Lidstrom] and he always would say to me ‘Why wouldn’t you put the guy who makes all the plays on his forehand?"’ said Babcock. "It’s a great question."

But surely he’s been around long enough to know that left-right symmetry isn’t always possible, even if it’s preferred. Consider the league-wide numbers from this season so far: Of the defencemen with at least 30 games played, 70 shoot right and 104 shoot left.

There’s a lot of teams out there making due.

The Leafs are among them, now with five left-hand shots and righty Nikita Zaitsev poised to dress as long as this lineup remains healthy.

"You know what’s interesting is I was watching Pittsburgh [Wednesday] night and that’s what they dressed. They had [Kris] Letang and the five left shots," said Babcock. "The bottom line is the way the game’s played right now, it’s way tighter, it’s way harder. You can’t go rink wide on your backhand, you rim it to the bottom versus getting a shot on the net in the O-zone.

"There’s no question about it: It’s not perfect, it’s what we got. It’s what was available and we’re going to make it work."

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