TORONTO – With 30 years on the rock, 763 professional hockey games in the bank and an infant waiting at home, Jake Muzzin is blessed with something few others on the fourth-youngest NHL club possess. (And, no, we’re not talking about his Stanley Cup ring, that sparkly reminder from the Los Angeles Kings’ charmed run in 2014.)
Muzzin has perspective.
And it’s during occasions like this — as his Toronto Maple Leafs have dropped three of the past four games, slinking to a losing record and staring at another back-to-back with their captain sidelined — when a cocktail of patience and wisdom can calm the nerves.
“I feel like everyone’s coming at us like it’s the end of the world here. We’re OK,” chuckles Muzzin, following Thursday’s practice. “Every team goes through it, and we’re having some talks, but, I mean, it’s not frickin’ go crazy.”
As Muzzin speaks, the usual swarm of Toronto media zigzags from player to player, filling their recording apps with explanations as to why a supposed championship contender sits 18th overall in points percentage (.544).
Local talk radio has begun questioning the head coach’s job security, and a list of tangible, yet mendable, trends have reared their ugly head.
Five blown-lead losses.
Seven goals allowed on the game’s first, second or third shot on net.
A league-high 38 giveaways.
A league-high 29 even-strength goals against.
A slew of sloppy stick infractions, adding up to the NHL’s third-most minor penalties (41).
With John Tavares (finger) injured, the pressure has ratcheted on superstars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, each wearing a letter on his chest, each filling his bank account with paycheques well over 10 times that of their entry-level compensation a year prior.
That tension has been surfacing in the young talents’ body language and words.
“I hate losing,” says Matthews, grateful for Wednesday’s day away from the rink. Time he spent chilling and not thinking about work. “Yeah, you’re frustrated, but it’s still early.”
As he did after Tuesday night’s 4-2 loss against the Bruins in Boston, Matthews again makes a call for accountability within the room.
“We’re a family here,” Matthews says, “but sometimes you gotta yell at your family.”
To the contrary, Muzzin — an older brother in this analogy — insists he’s not frustrated.
Considering where the defenceman was a year ago at this time, you believe him. Muzzin was on the 2-7-1 Kings in late October 2018. He watched his coach, John Stevens, get fired after one more loss. Still, the panic outside the dressing room wasn’t anything like he’s observing during his first full run in Toronto, where the rooting for your team also entails fretting and dissecting.
“No! We had two (media) guys in here. That was it,” Muzzin laughs.
“This business is driven by winning, and when you’re not winning, questions start getting asked. I feel like the pressure is always there to perform and to win. In this market, it’s a little more intense.
“Maybe sometimes it takes a little longer than everyone’s expecting it to just — boom — happen. It’s tough. I mean, there’s other good teams out there, and when you have new faces playing new systems, sometimes there’s miscues. So, we’re working it out. We’ll be all right.”
There is evidence to support Muzzin’s theory that, in fact, the sky is not falling.
• Toronto’s much-lauded offence has generated more even-strength goals (30) than any other club, and the Leafs are not relying on one line to produce.
• The underlying shot metrics look promising. The Leafs’ 54 per cent Corsi at 5-on-5 rates third overall.
• Subtract Tuesday’s empty-netter, and they’ve only lost once by more than a goal, their 7-3 drubbing by the Tampa Bay Lightning on Oct. 10.
• The Leafs’ 98.2 PDO — hockey’s attempt to put math to puck luck — positions them as the eighth-unluckiest team in the league. The theory here being that more saves and goals are on their way.
• They are enduring four back-to-backs this month and are now grinding away without three regulars — Tavares, Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott — in the lineup, while a mystery ailment has now forced Morgan Rielly to skip two practices this week.
“I think that’s all excuses. The bottom line is, we’ve got games, you gotta play ’em, and you gotta play well,” Babcock says. “We can be better, and we have to be better — individually and collectively.”
Part of being better in their own end, Muzzin believes should come with improved communication and adaptation to their new defence partners. Not one of Toronto’s pairings, remember, has carried over from 2018-19, and Dermott’s return next week will shake things up once more.
“We’ve got to talk more in our zone. I think that eliminates a lot of miscues. But there are new guys. Maybe they’re not sure what to yell or feel comfortable yelling. It’s not easy,” Muzzin explains.
That half-second of hesitation to read a coverage is all an elite offence, such as Boston’s, needs to strike. Muzzin suggests we patiently allow Toronto’s defenders to find their groove.
“Then you will see players on the other team with less time and less chances against, I believe,” the savvy veteran says.
“I’m confident in this group. I don’t want to blow anything out of proportion. We’ll be fine.”