TORONTO — Jake Muzzin has seen some things. Start with the rise and fall of California’s era of Big Boy Hockey, one that got his name inscribed on the Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings and included many spirited battles with the Anaheim Ducks.
Times have changed. The former Southern Californian powerhouses are sinking.
"I think the game of hockey is transitioning to a skilled, fast game like we have here [in Toronto] and over there it’s tough," Muzzin said after the Maple Leafs’ 6-1 dismantling of the Ducks. "The big guys, sometimes they just can’t handle the speed and skill that some of these Eastern teams have."
Fortunately, Muzzin is able to play it any way you like it.
He’s looked remarkably at home in Toronto so far, bringing a couple fresh elements to his new team and quickly winning over the fans at Scotiabank Arena. In the span of about 30 seconds on Monday, he hammered Corey Perry to the ice, drew a retaliatory cross-checking penalty from Nick Ritchie and scored on the power play with a bomb of a one-timer.
"We were joking about him being on Legend’s Row after the game because of the way he was playing," said Morgan Rielly.
Even in a town where you were hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t like last week’s Muzzin trade, this has been a noteworthy entrance. Muzzin brought the crowd to its feet when he laid a thundering hit on Jake Guentzel in Saturday’s 3-2 victory over Pittsburgh and added two assists to go with the goal, hit and penalty drawn against the Ducks.
Most importantly, he’s looked like the stabilizing presence the Leafs thought they were getting in the Jan. 28 trade with Los Angeles. He makes simple passes that produce clean exits from the defensive zone and has seen Toronto control 62 per cent of even-strength shot attempts while he’s on the ice across three games.
"You don’t win two Stanley Cups by accident. You know how to play," said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. "He’s really good in his own zone, denies the back[-door pass], makes a good outlet pass, he’s a big body and plays real hard between the whistles. Obviously, with his experience and the kind of man he is, he’s going to make us a better team."
There’s also something about his style that fans and teammates are gravitating towards in a big way. Whether it’s his bushy beard, or the big hits, or the cannon of a shot … Muzzin is quickly gaining appreciation for a game that one opponent recently called "low-key amazing."
On Monday, Rielly poked his head out of a back room and yelled "Legend’s Row!" when Muzzin met reporters following a first-star turn. Teammates aren’t hiding their excitement about his ability to produce a standing ovation in a notoriously conservative building, either.
"The fans get pumped up and we get pumped up, too," said Andreas Johnsson, who had four points against Anaheim. "It creates a lot of energy."
"I couldn’t imagine a welcoming like this," said Muzzin, a low-key guy from Woodstock, Ont., population 40,000. "Coming here, I didn’t know what to expect, really, with media and hockey really in general. So I’m very pleased with how it’s going. Hopefully it continues."
Muzzin is still living in a hotel and getting used to being recognized while walking around the city. It’s been an incredibly hectic time because of the trade and his desire to find a place so that his pregnant wife Courtney and their three dogs can soon join him in Toronto.
A couple weeks before his 30th birthday, this is the dawning of the second act in his NHL career.
He’ll hit the 500-game milestone when Ottawa visits on Wednesday, and is clearly enthused about the opportunity the Leafs are giving him to chase glory again.
"Good team. Good coaching. Good plan, and it’s easy to follow," he said, when asked why things have started so well in Toronto. "They’re very clear in how we’re supposed to play and that’s how we’re playing. And especially with Mo, having a good partner helps it out as well."
Muzzin looks like he may be able to give the team’s sagging power play a boost because of a shot none of his teammates can match. At minimum, opponents will have to respect it as a threat, which should create some more space below the circles.
On a night where the Leafs manhandled the Ducks, it was a weapon on its own — producing a juicy rebound that Johnsson lifted over John Gibson while also finding a clear lane through penalty killers and hitting twine behind the Anaheim goaltender late in the second period.
Muzzin broke out a unique celebration for his first goal in Maple Leafs colours, going through the fly-by line at the bench with an elbow bump for teammates rather than a fist.
"That started a long time ago," he said. "Just an injury to a hand, really, and I went with an elbow and stuck with it. Not much to it."
That would seem to sum up the man perfectly.
What you see is what you get.
"I think he’s a great player, he likes to be physical," said Rielly. "The more comfortable he gets and the more we can help him just be himself, I think the better he’ll be."