TORONTO — Jake Muzzin hasn’t had to search too hard for something to be grateful for during the COVID-19 pandemic.
First and foremost is the good health of his family and the chance to spend these last six weeks bonding more closely with his one-year-old daughter Luna. Then there’s the fact that the NHL allowed injured players like him to continue rehabbing inside team facilities during the paused season, putting him in position to jump directly back into the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup upon resumption.
And, as the cherry on top of it all, Muzzin finds comfort from the $22.5-million, four-year contract extension he signed back on Feb. 24 — sparing him any of the additional worry pending NHL unrestricted free agents are now facing in a difficult economy that will almost certainly feature a flat salary cap for the foreseeable future.
“It’s bad. It’s the uncertainty of these things,” Muzzin said Tuesday on a conference call. “There’s an unknown that, I think, would be in the back of your mind. Like I don’t know if these guys are going to get what they think they should get or if it’s going to be fine or if something’s going to drastically change and maybe you have to structure a deal differently. I don’t know. …
“I think that would weigh on me and I think it’s weighing on some guys, yeah.”
It’s something that has probably crossed the mind of teammate Tyson Barrie, for example, with the pending UFA defenceman already having acknowledged feeling the strain of a contract season before the pandemic threw an extra helping of unpredictability into the process.
These are challenging times for everyone, to varying degrees, and Muzzin counts himself among the fortunate.
While most of his teammates dispersed after the NHL season was paused on March 12, he continued seeing the Leafs medical staff on a regular basis to get treatment on a broken knuckle in his right hand. That included physio, strength and mobility work that would have had Muzzin ready to play weeks ago, if need be — and could see him ultimately get back regular-season games he otherwise would have missed if the NHL ends up completing its schedule as hoped this summer.
“The NHL’s looked after players that were hurt before. … I was lucky to benefit from that,” said Muzzin, who suffered his injury blocking a Victor Hedman shot in Tampa on Feb. 25.
The biggest adjustment during the pause has been life apart from the team. The Leafs players keep an ongoing group text and have set up Zoom calls, according to Muzzin, in an effort to try and maintain a sense of togetherness.
But his visits to the practice facility are quite a bit different than what he’d usually see in March and April.
“Coming in and there’s only two people, three people, really,” said Muzzin. “When you have the whole arena to yourself it’s kind of an eerie feeling.”
The 31-year-old defenceman has seemingly morphed into the conscience of the Leafs dressing room since arriving in a January 2019 trade with Los Angeles. There was hope when he earned the contract extension that it would give him an even greater ability to positively influence less experienced teammates and make his voice heard.
“This signing is significant in terms of just giving him the ability to know that he’s really in this with us,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said at the time. “Not that he wasn’t before, but just having it secured like that we can really get to work.”
Muzzin’s next game — whenever that may be — will be just his second in the Toronto lineup since he inked that new deal.
No wonder there was so much optimism in his voice while looking ahead to a summer where he may have to join other NHLers in a self-contained environment just to finish the season. As much as he initially struggled to get comfortable with everything that comes with being a member of the Leafs, he’s thrilled now to have his future tied to them.
“The direction the team is going, the personnel, the people, the organization and the buzz in the city — I mean there’s way more positives than negatives,” said Muzzin. “We wanted to be here and we felt the team wanted for me to be here and I’m glad and really fortunate that we got a deal done before all of this happened.”