Maple Leafs looking at cause of Muzzin’s inconsistency: ‘He’s got more to give’

Maple Leafs' John Tavares and Jake Muzzin discuss how proud of Jack Campbell they are that he made the All-Star team, and how lucky they feel to have such a great person and player as their netminder.

Update: The Maple Leafs announced Tuesday that Muzzin will miss the team's upcoming road trip after being diagnosed with a concussion.

TORONTO -- Never one for excuses, Jake Muzzin needed about 75 minutes to shovel out his driveway when he awoke Monday to Toronto’s heaviest snowfall in well over a decade.

A fifth-round draft pick now 11 years deep into his NHL career, the veteran defenceman begins the majority of his shifts buried in his own zone. He’s turned himself into a multimillionaire and a Stanley Cup champion by plowing out of tough situations and driving forward.

“Wasn't too bad,” Muzzin said, arriving at practice in time to punch the clock on a snow day. “Took a little bit more time than usual, but it was quiet out there at least.”

One can’t begrudge the 32-year-old a peaceful, snow-globe commute.

Muzzin is a normally steady blue line presence who -- outside of some thunderous bodychecks -- does much of his best work in silence. He relies on smarts, sandpaper and experience to do the dirty work that frees his all-star teammates to weave magic.

But in Muzzin’s world, this season has been noisier, weightier than most.

On more occasions than Muzzin, his coach, or Leafs Nation would prefer, the enemy’s goal horn has blasted when he’s facing his own goalie. He accidentally sidelined his own club’s best winger, Mitch Marner, for weeks with a shoulder injury, after they collided in practice.

And the greatest concern bubbling underneath the Maple Leafs’ sparkling 24-9-3 record -- the franchise’s best ever through 36 games -- is the performance of their shutdown pairing, which Muzzin anchors.

For the first time since he was a dash-21 for a freefalling Kings squad five seasons ago, Muzzin is a minus (minus-two, lowest among Toronto defencemen). Until Morgan Rielly’s extension kicks in next fall, Muzzin also totes the richest salary ($5.625 million AAV) on the blue line.

Ever the realist, Muzzin is demanding better of himself.

Ever the strategist, coach Sheldon Keefe has been trying to accentuate the positive while rooting out the cause of Muzzin’s recent inconsistency.

“Hard to say. It's hard to pinpoint that,” Keefe says. “It's something that we're looking at and talking about. But I think with Muzz, you got to look at the fact he does a lot of really good things.”

Take Muzzin’s rather high-event Saturday evening in St. Louis, for example.

In addition to getting his bell rung by a hard Klim Kostin forecheck, Muzzin and rookie partner Timothy Liljegren were caught on the ice for three preventable Blues strikes. Liljegren blamed himself for some soft net-front work.

“I wasn't very good either,” Muzzin responded, owning the mistakes. “I gotta be better for him, for sure. Especially an older guy trying to help out a younger guy. He was fine. Most of it was on me.”

On the flip side, Muzzin also helped drive play out of danger and was on the ice for three Leafs goals, including Ilya Mikheyev’s game-winner late.

“I thought he had a tough night in St. Louis. But I went through [the video], and there's a lot of great moments in that game where he kills plays and eliminates guys and is physical and knocking guys on their ass and getting us moving the other way,” Keefe reasons.

“There's a ton of things that have gone well for him. I think that he's capable of carrying a load as a veteran defenceman for his partner and for his D pair. But some inconsistencies with his pairing, I think, haven’t helped.”

While Toronto’s top duo of Rielly and T.J. Brodie is seldom shaken and its young, rotating third pair is heavily sheltered, Muzzin and his partner get fed a diet of top lines, penalty kills and own-zone draws.

No Leaf has logged more ice 4-on-5, and a whopping 63 per cent of Muzzin’s total shifts start in Toronto’s end -- a career high.

“There's been some tough moments that really stand out with the puck. But at the same time,” Keefe says, “he takes on as hard minutes as anybody on our team. We’re a team that's won a lot of hockey games this season -- and we're not doing that if Muzz isn’t taking on those minutes.”

Muzzin, Keefe says, is the Leafs’ “most physical defenceman by far” (although Rasmus Sandin is on the rise) and is committed to cleaning up his game, reducing those costly giveaways and returning to the level he was at when GM Kyle Dubas awarded him a juicy contract extension (through 2024) well in advance of deadline.

We’re talking about a defender who can be so instrumental that Montreal’s Tyler Toffoli knew the Canadiens would win their playoff series against the Leafs once Muzzin succumbed to a damaged groin.

“[Muzzin] is as aware of what he's going through and the fact he's got more to give us and better to give us as anybody on our team,” Keefe says. “So, I'm not worried about that aspect of it. But [it’s] certainly something we've continued to talk about.”

Makes for a nuanced discussion.

Has the wear and tear of Muzzin’s physical brand of hockey taken its toll? Are we witnessing the inevitable athletic decline that comes with age? Has the pandemic piled on unseen stress, the way it has for so many of us? Or does Muzzin simply need a better defenceman over his right shoulder?

Muzzin and his most frequent partner, Justin Holl, have been outscored 21-16 this season at even strength, with 53 per cent of scoring chances going the wrong way. The score is 5-3 in Muzzin’s favour in his smaller sample with Liljegren, but we’re not sold yet.

Dubas’s top priority heading towards March’s trade deadline should be setting Muzzin up for success, the way Rielly has flourished alongside Brodie.

If Holl or Liljegren can’t seize the opportunity (lefty Sandin’s experience on his off side is limited), Dubas should dive into the trade market and help him stabilize.

Muzzin has bailed out the Leafs many a night; looks like he may be reaching a point where he needs some help.

Muzzin’s inconsistencies seem to be matching the Leafs’ schedule and their defensive lapses since the calendar flipped.

“But a lot of teams are going through this, with different road trips, different personnel in the lineup due to COVID, injuries and all that stuff,” Muzzin says.

“So, there's no excuse, you know? You just got to keep on battling.”

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