Maple Leafs get their ‘conscience’ back with Jake Muzzin’s return

Toronto Maple Leafs' Ilya Mikheyev (65) congratulates teammate Jake Muzzin after his goal. (Hans Deryk/CP)

DALLAS — You never get any B.S. from Jake Muzzin.

He is a speaker of unvarnished truth. Owner of a shiny Stanley Cup ring who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty. A steadying we-before-me presence.

And, for a brief time last week, Muzzin was a well-paid member of the Toronto Marlies — returning to the American Hockey League more than seven years and 600 NHL games after he last stepped foot in the minors.

That came on a conditioning stint to help ease his return from a broken foot. Incredibly rare is the established veteran who will consent to that return-to-play routine — the Leafs have had others decline the option in the past — but the 30-year-old Muzzin had no reservations about taking the bus ride to Cleveland and playing more than 27 minutes for the Marlies before making his NHL return.

“I mean, I was going to feel like shit no matter what,” said Muzzin. “So that was a good way to get it out.”

It’s an instance that tells us a lot about the player. And it helps illustrate why the Leafs view him as an integral member of the team.

Sheldon Keefe referred to Muzzin as the “conscience” of the Leafs this week and he was comfortable rolling him out for 22:38 in Tuesday’s 5-2 victory over the Nashville Predators in part because he’d shaken some cobwebs out during the AHL conditioning stint.

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“He’s really only concerned about putting himself in his best position to succeed and then our team in a position to succeed,” said Keefe. “Not many players would do that. He’s not really concerned about his ego or any other stuff other than getting himself ready.”

Muzzin’s brief AHL stint earned him extra street cred in a dressing room that features 13 players that have previously graduated from the Marlies. He was presented with the team’s game ball following the win in Nashville and some of his teammates chided him for being their latest difference-making callup.

“I feel like I’ve joined that group now,” Muzzin joked. “I’m part of the boys.”

But on a serious note that spell with the Marlies paid dividends during his first NHL action since Dec. 27. There’s simply no way to properly replicate the intensity of game conditions when rehabbing an injury on your own and he felt more comfortable with the puck than he might otherwise have had he spent all-star weekend doing something else.

“Hands, reads, a little bit of physicality — you don’t get that when you’re skating by yourself or even with a few guys working on skills,” said Muzzin. “You know, and just making plays under pressure. Guys on you, having the poise to make a play and stuff like that.

“I thought it was a good choice by management and for me to go down.”

Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of the trade that brought Muzzin to Toronto for prospects Carl Grundstrom and Sean Durzi, plus a first-round pick the Los Angeles Kings used on defenceman Tobias Bjornfot.

The initial adjustment was difficult.

Even though it brought Muzzin close to his childhood home of Woodstock, Ont., the deal caught him off-guard and came at a time his wife was seven-months pregnant with their first child. It also took him from a team and a city that he felt a deep affinity for.

Fast forward 12 months and Muzzin is hoping to hammer out a contract extension with Toronto that will keep him from testing unrestricted free agency this summer. There is mutual interest in trying to find a solution on that front, although the cap-challenged Leafs have to be careful with every financial commitment they make.

At least there is trust and comfort built into the relationship between player and team.

“The organization, the way they look after us, the guys here, the city,” said Muzzin, when asked what he likes about being a Leaf. “The buzz in the city about hockey is huge. Being close to home is always a nice touch, especially with a little one around now, so there’s lots of good things here and I’d love to stay.”

There’s a case to be built for keeping him around.

Muzzin is arguably the steadiest defensive presence on the Leafs blue-line and he’s a throwback to boot. He’ll block a shot or step into a rushing opponent to keep him honest. And when something needs said behind closed doors he’s quick to lend his voice to the difficult conversations.

“He’s an emotional guy and we need more emotion in our game sometimes,” said veteran Jason Spezza.

“He just does so many things well in all three zones,” said captain John Tavares. “Just sets a great tone for us with the fire that he plays with, how competitive he is and just knowing what it takes, especially when games are tough.

“Tight hockey games, he always seems to elevate.”

And when the organization asks him to play an AHL game for conditioning purposes he’ll do that, too.

No questions asked.

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