TORONTO – Kyle Dubas laid out his plan publicly (defencemen term over rentals), and then followed through, connecting with a hard first swing, with four weeks for another crack before the trading deadline.
We won’t know for certain if the Toronto Maple Leafs rookie general manager’s first major trade since assuming the helm from Lou Lamoriello is a home run until the ball falls, but one couldn’t blame the 33-year-old if he did a bat flip after flossing in his executive suite Monday night.
By swiping Jake Muzzin — arguably 2018-19’s most consistent player from its worst Western Conference team — Dubas not only obtained the best player in the deal but the type of difference-maker that should narrow the gap between the Maple Leafs and their blueprint, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Muzzin is accustomed to logging heavy shutdown minutes against the top lines in hockey, he can kill penalties (an element coach Mike Babcock has been thirsting for), he’s comfortable chipping in on the power-play (and has three 40-point seasons on his resume), and he’s a zone-exit monster.
Grizzled hockey men will love that the 29-year-old blocks shots (20th overall, with 92) and adds a second Stanley Cup ring to the young Leafs room. And the number crunchers can point to the Woodstock, Ont., native’s positive score effects.
“I just thought it was great fit for us,” Dubas said. “When he joined Los Angeles coming out of junior [in 2010], they were kind of at the same stage we’re in now, so he has that experience of seeing a team mature from being a team that wanted to contend to contending and ultimately winning, and he was a big part of their championship team in 2014.
“He’s going to be here for at least the next year and a half and two runs at the spring.”
The trade for a top-four, left-shot, stay-at-home defender still in his prime and still with one playoff run beyond this one on his deal resembles the one former Tampa GM Steve Yzerman pulled off at the 2018 deadline, when he surrendered a first to grab Ryan McDonagh and all his playoff experience from New York.
Yes, the price Dubas paid isn’t bargain-bin cheap. He did give away a (presumably late) first-rounder in 2019, a decent prospect in Carl Grundstom (who ranks second to Trevor Moore on the AHL depth chart when everyone’s healthy), and the rights to unsigned 2018 second-rounder Sean Durzi.
But with the Kings — the NHL’s least offensive and third-oldest club — desperate to get younger, faster and cheaper, Dubas was able to sell Rob Blake maybes and hope in exchange for a tangible, proven asset.
“We feel this trade was necessary for the future of the organization,” Blake said. “We don’t like the position we’re in at all.”
Muzzin left a club with a negative-36 goal differential with a team-high plus-10 rating. So even on a bad team, the puck is going in the other net when he’s on the ice.
“I was a little shocked to get the phone call. You hear rumblings and rumours and stuff like that, and you just continue on your way until it actually happens,” Muzzin said.
“I was just thinking about it. Just playing them, how we got beat [4-1 and 5-1 this season], I was like, ‘Damn.’ And now I’m part of that team, so I’m real excited for the opportunity.”
Dubas addressed his club’s greatest need without surrendering anything from a roster that has vaulted to the league’s top five in points percentage, nor his most coveted prospects, righty D-men Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren.
“We were very clearly interested in Jake, and they had a number of players in our prospect pool that they deemed to have interest in,” said Dubas of a trade that has been in the works since Christmastime.
Drew Doughty, who for years benefitted from the Muzzin security blanket, playfully cracked at all-star weekend that Muzzin may have been his cheapest teammate when the dinner bill arrived, certainly his ability to fit nicely into the Leafs’ impending salary-cap squeeze at a “cheap” $4-million AAV is a bonus for Dubas as he negotiates with big dogs Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
Muzzin will consult with Babcock, with whom he shared a drink from the 2016 World Cup in this city, about where he’ll slot when he pulls on a Leafs sweater for the first time Thursday at the club’s practice in Detroit, but he does have experience patrolling the right side, and his presence could allow Norris candidate Morgan Rielly’s aging partner, Ron Hainsey, to provide a valuable mentorship role with rookie Travis Dermott on the third pairing.
“There’s good enough D back there that we can figure something out,” Muzzin said.
Dubas also noted that the trade had nothing to do with the health of Jake Gardiner (back spasms) and expects Gardiner to be at 100 per cent health for Friday’s bye-week return game. The Muzzin trade, however, does ensure Toronto two bona fide top-tier lefty D-men in their prime should Gardiner be squeezed out into free agency.
“I was thrown into the fire early in my career,” Muzzin said as he stepped into the spotlight.
“The last few years it’s been a battle and a struggle, but I’m definitely excited to have another chance to get there and have a crack at it.”