Maple Leafs will be tested by loss of Jake Muzzin’s leadership

Jake Muzzin had to leave the game after blocking a shot from the Lightning with his hand.

SUNRISE, Fla. — To understand how quickly Jake Muzzin became part of the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ fabric, it’s instructive to reflect on his uneasy beginning with the team.

“There’s no question about it: It’s not perfect, it’s what we got,” former coach Mike Babcock said, infamously, on Muzzin’s first day with the Leafs a little more than a year ago. He was referencing the imbalance of left- and right-handed shots among the defence corps, but he just as easily could have been talking about how the defenceman felt amid the shock of his first NHL trade.

Those early days in Toronto were tough.

“I was living in a hotel with three dogs and a pregnant wife,” Muzzin said recently. “Yeah, there was a lot of [expletive] going on.”

Fast forward to the dark clouds hovering over the team following Wednesday’s announcement that the 31-year-old will be out approximately four weeks with a broken right hand. The injury was suffered Tuesday night in Tampa during the Leafs’ first game after a trade deadline where the only notable addition was depth defenceman Calle Rosen — who was recalled from the American Hockey League and participated in an afternoon practice at BB&T Center.

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There’s really no positive spin to be put on losing a heart-and-soul, 22-minute-per-night player in the middle of a tight playoff race. In the words of teammate Travis Dermott: “Muzz is a massive part of our team, definitely our defensive anchor.”

“It’s not ideal, but I mean it’s part of the gig, right?” added head coach Sheldon Keefe. “That’s the reason why you acquire depth and the reason why you develop players and the reason why you have a good and healthy minor-league system. It’s to be able to have these situations happen and then continue to press on.”

The injury news arrived two days after Muzzin signed a four-year, $22.5-million extension that Keefe felt would give him an amplified voice inside the team. It was a sign that management wanted him around for a window where this young core is expected to develop into a Stanley Cup contender.

And it was telling, that in discussing Muzzin’s new deal on Monday, Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas pointed to the player’s 10-game absence with a broken foot after the Christmas break as a period where his importance was underscored:

“I think it was very apparent when he was out of the lineup that we missed him deeply.”

It’s not a stretch to suggest that his latest injury could cost the Leafs a playoff spot, especially since it follows those to Morgan Rielly (broken foot) and Cody Ceci (ankle).

The Leafs hold a two-point lead over the Florida Panthers for third place in the Atlantic Division heading into Thursday’s game here against the Panthers. And both Rielly and Ceci remain “weeks” away from a return, according to Keefe.

Among Toronto’s seven healthy defencemen, only Tyson Barrie has played more than 250 NHL games. The rest of the group is still looking to gain traction at this level: Martin Marincin (222 games), Dermott (151), Justin Holl (75), Rasmus Sandin (24), Rosen (16) and Timothy Liljegren (eight).

Muzzin makes the greatest defensive impact among those players, and it was likely no coincidence that when assistant coach Dave Hakstol gathered the group for a chat after Wednesday’s practice he hammered home the need to focus on something Muzzin does best: Identifying the proper moments during defensive zone coverage where there’s an opportunity to aggressively break up the cycle.

“There was a little rah-rah in there, too,” said Holl. “Digging in and making those plays is a huge difference in terms of breaking the puck out, as opposed to getting stuck in your zone for an extra 30 seconds or 40 seconds.”

The Toronto Maple Leafs practising in Florida. (Chris Johnston/Sportsnet)

Dermott is tasked with taking on the most added responsibility after being elevated to Muzzin’s spot on the shutdown pairing alongside Holl. He played more than 11 of the final 20 minutes during Tuesday’s 4-3 win against Tampa and hopes to use it as a springboard.

“It was a big feel-good period for us going forward,” said Dermott. “It was a tough battle there, they were coming at us with a lot of heat and everyone kind of understood what we had to do. We beared down and got it done.”

Another challenge brought on by Muzzin’s absence is losing his stabilizing voice in the dressing room. He’s elevated his play during the recent stretch of up-and-down performances, and set the right tone in particular after the embarrassing loss against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Earlier this week, he and Keefe had a conversation about how he could best influence the younger players around him. Amid the stresses of the playoff chase and with Muzzin having just made a contractual commitment to the team, they saw an opportunity.

“This signing is significant in terms of just giving him the ability to know that he’s really in this with us,” said Keefe. “Not that he wasn’t before, but just having it secured like that we can really get to work.”

“The core of the team needs to take a jump consistently,” Muzzin said before Tuesday’s game in Tampa. “We can’t have it one night and not the next. That’s everyone and that’s bringing along the younger core as well. We have to give them no option but to come with us.”

Now they have to play on without him.

It’s not going to be easy.

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