Jake Muzzin helping bring young Maple Leafs together in room and beyond

Auston Matthews scored two goals and the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Ottawa Senators.

TORONTO — You won’t find a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs who understands this sport’s spirit of sacrifice quite like Jake Muzzin.

He’s from the ilk of defencemen that don’t think twice about jumping in front of a slapshot, or absorbing a big hit while executing a clean breakout pass, and his willingness to put the “we” before “me” extends beyond the rink as well.

As one of the few veterans on the NHL’s fourth-youngest team, Muzzin now finds himself searching out opportunities for team-bonding activities and sorting through restaurant options on the road. He’s even decided to pick up his phone every now and again.

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“I’m not good at it really, at all. I don’t like calling people and planning,” he said Thursday. “I like someone else doing it and I just show up, you know?”

The 30-year-old has embraced a role dubbed the “social co-ordinator” by head coach Mike Babcock because he thinks it’s vital to long-term success. When he looks back on the Los Angeles Kings teams that raised the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014, he remembers a band of brothers spirit that helped them overcome the most difficult obstacles.

These Leafs are now in transition having ushered out longtime stalwarts Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner over the summer, plus trusted vets Patrick Marleau and Ron Hainsey.

There was a void in the dressing room to go with all the new faces at training camp and Muzzin stepped forward with an idea to help bring the group together. He got the green light.

“Muzz can get things lined up and going,” said Babcock.

“I honestly think it helps,” said Muzzin. “[When teammates spend time together socially] they’re not on edge, they’re not scared of the coach, they’re not trying to impress, they’re just being themselves. I think once you get to know everyone — just like who they are really away from the rink — then you have a better feeling of what they’re going through or what you see on the ice or what you can help them with.

“It goes a long way.”

None of this would be possible if Muzzin hadn’t found his own comfort zone in Toronto. He was blindsided by the Jan. 28 trade that uprooted him from the Kings organization after a decade and came while his wife, Courtney, was seven months pregnant with their first child.

The couple loved their beachside lifestyle — who wouldn’t? — and got tossed into the middle of the NHL’s biggest fishbowl in the middle of winter.

“You don’t live your life planning to be traded or moved or [have] something drastic happen,” said Muzzin. “We assumed that our life was down in South Bay there — Hermosa and Manhattan Beach — and we would live there and just play there. We were settled in and ready to go there for life, really.

“I think at that point it was.”

The defenceman made a point of returning to Toronto earlier than usual for summer skates as much because of the social benefits as any extra comfort he might build on the ice. He thinks it’s helped to spend more time with teammates and get to know their families on a personal level.

While it’s premature to handicap how the Leafs might handle his impending UFA status — they most certainly won’t have the cap space to extend Muzzin, partner Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci beyond this season — you can certainly start building a case for trying to keep him around.

“He’s got a great personality, he’s got a great way of socializing with everybody within the team and making them feel welcome and a part of it,” said general manager Kyle Dubas.

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Muzzin is also an effective play-driver on a team that has established two clear goals after breaking down its most successful opponents over the summer. The Leafs coaching staff is tracking 5-on-5 chances and time spent in the offensive zone this season and looking to make improvements in both areas.

It was no surprise to see Muzzin log more than 22 minutes in Wednesday’s season-opening 5-3 victory over Ottawa given his strong puck skills and comfort on both specialty teams.

Toronto gave up a lot to bring him here — the Kings are starting the season with Tobias Bjornfot, selected with the 22nd overall pick acquired from Toronto, and Carl Grundstrom on their NHL roster — but did so because of his ability to strengthen the blue line and help push a young team to the next level.

He’s certainly a supporting asset for new captain John Tavares and alternates Morgan Rielly, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews.

Had the circumstances and dynamics around this group been a little bit different, Muzzin would be wearing a letter this season. The Leafs gave him an “A” for exhibition games and have tasked him with being a captain in the shadows from here on out.

“I think we have the absolute right guys in the positions out there. One hundred per cent,” said Muzzin. “There’s no other leaders that I would want to play under. I’ve been around a little bit now and I’ve experienced some things. Now I’m going to just back them up and help lead where I can, but it’s not hurting my feelings that I didn’t get a letter.

“I’ll be OK.”

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