TORONTO — Once upon a time, Jake Muzzin chose Los Angeles.
He certainly didn’t ever choose to leave.
“You don’t live your life planning to be traded or moved or have something drastic happen,” Muzzin said last month. “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.”
Even today, more than nine months after being dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Woodstock, Ont., native and his wife Courtney continue to call that quaint, idyllic corner of California “home.”
“We still go back there in the summer so we see a lot of the faces,” said Muzzin. “A lot of guys are there throughout the summer as well. We were fortunate enough to sign there early in my career and then have a good career there.
“A lot of good memories. A lot of good friendships.”
It will make Tuesday’s visit by the Los Angeles Kings stand out among the steady drumbeat of games on the November schedule for Muzzin. This is his first chance to line up across from Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter and a handful of others he sipped from the Stanley Cup with back in 2014.
Despite enduring the shock of being traded and adjusting to the NHL’s less gritty conference, Muzzin has quickly and quietly assumed an important role inside the Leafs dressing room. He’s the only player on the roster who’s been fitted for a championship ring and one of the few in blue and white who will make an opponent think twice while skating down his wing.
He’s also the kind of guy who takes the initiative to organize a players-only trip to a Buffalo Bills game in the spirit of team-bonding — a jaunt Muzzin spearheaded at the end of training camp.
On a young roster bubbling over with speed and skill, he is the sandpaper. Not to mention one of the few adults in the room.
“I think here in Toronto, he’s become more of a defensive guy and he really does a good job at that,” said Doughty. “Shutting down other teams’ good players and just a good guy in the room. A good person. Good family guy, just a really good overall guy.”
“Jake’s a real good man, he’s got real good confidence,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock.
There is something to be said for his journey to the centre of the hockey universe. He’s earned 540 NHL games (and counting) the hard way — undergoing surgery for a serious disc issue in his back as a teenager, getting drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins and being left unsigned, and eventually choosing the Kings from a long list of NHL suitors following a breakout campaign in his overage year with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
Muzzin then came through the American Hockey League and served as a Black Ace during L.A.’s run to the Stanley Cup in 2012. He was an invaluable piece by the time they won another title two years later.
There’s a reason why Toronto put together a tidy package of futures to acquire him on Jan. 28: winger Carl Grundstrom, now skating on the Kings’ top line; a 2019 first-round pick that became defenceman Tobias Bjornfot, who broke camp in Los Angeles; and prospect Sean Durzi, a 20-year-old defenceman currently in the AHL.
With Muzzin set to become a free agent this summer and no guarantee the Leafs will have the necessary cap space to retain him, there’s some urgency from both parties to squeeze something meaningful out of this season.
They’ll have to follow a different template than the one that worked in Los Angeles.
“We played a different game. Different personnel,” said Muzzin. “We were a big, heavy team and coming out of the West like that, those were the teams that were coming out of there. Heavy teams that forecheck and wear you down mentally and grind you down physically.
“That was the way to win out there.”
Times change and so do sweaters.
Even still, that idea is going to take some getting used for a guy who has seen just about everything the sport has to offer. Muzzin spent each of his four OHL seasons with Sault Ste. Marie before putting in another eight and a half years with the Kings organization.
He didn’t switch any allegiances until getting dealt to Toronto.
“I used to grow up playing against Muzz when I played for London Junior Knights and he was on Brantford,” said Doughty. “So it’s been a long time since we played against each other, but it’ll be exciting. You gotta have your head up when you’re rushing the puck up, because he can throw some big hits, obviously.”
Muzzin is just happy to be in the lineup after getting knocked out of a game last week with a charley horse courtesy of a late hit from Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson. He then missed Saturday’s visit to Philadelphia to attend to a personal matter.
As for how it’ll feel to look across the ice on Tuesday and see so many old friends?
“I don’t know. We’ll find out,” said Muzzin. “It’s my first one. Right now it seems kind of funny, but maybe when it comes time it’ll be a little difficult.”