TORONTO — To understand why the Toronto Maple Leafs rolled the dice on an aging and oft-injured Jake Muzzin this season is to know what the man means to the dressing room.
As blunt as he is bruising, the Stanley Cup winner has been described by coach Sheldon Keefe as the team’s “conscience.”
Muzzin’s words carry a weight as heavy and honest as the way the defenceman has played the game for a dozen winters.
Early in his Leafs tenure, Muzzin hit the nail on its sensitive head when he called his peers out for wanting “the easy game.”
“We have to find the urgency, the passion, the love of the game, the love to compete for each other. All that needs to come,” Muzzin implored during one of this core’s multiple roller-coaster seasons. “I don’t know why it’s not there. We want the easy game, and when you play good teams, it’s not going to be easy.
“It’s everything. Physically, we need to be stronger. Mentally, need to be ready. Having that intensity in our game. We have to take a look at ourselves.”
Muzzin can dish the tough love because everything he’s reaped from hockey has been hard-earned. He commands his fellow Maple Leafs’ respect as well their attention.
He is also a uniting force, a letterless captain who can play the role of social convenor, a wicked dry wit who is happy to mentor and share from experience.
“There’s a void there just as much as there is on the ice,” Morgan Rielly says. “On the plane, he’s our guy in poker. He’s just a big part of our group — on the road, on the plane, in the room, on the ice. So it’s on our guys now to accept more responsibility to step up. And realize that there’s a gap there without him, and we got to make sure that we fill it.”
On multiple occasions, Mitch Marner has referred to Muzzin as his best friend on the team.
“You take him out, and other people are now having to say more, address different situations,” Keefe explains.
As a result, the club has tried to keep Muzzin involved in off-ice meetings. They love seeing him, as Marner says, “still working his bag off in the gym every day, trying to stay ready.”
They want his perspective but would rather his boxouts and zone clears, too.
“Not quite the same as when you have him in uniform,” Keefe says. “That’s what we talked about (internally). Other people have had to step up in those areas.”
Dealing with multiple concussions, Muzzin only managed to appear in 47 games last season but was rock solid in Toronto’s seven-game playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
GM Kyle Dubas could have deemed the left shot an injury risk and dangled Muzzin as trade bait over the summer. But replacing his minutes — his presence — was seen as too tall an order, so Toronto bet on Muzzin staying healthy enough.
Now, a frightening reality is sinking in: There is no guarantee Muzzin plays another NHL game.
On Monday, after half a training camp and just four appearances, Muzzin was ruled out indefinitely due to a cervical spine injury. He’s suffered two of those as a Leaf, the first back in the 2020 playoff bubble against Columbus.
Muzzin will be re-evaluated in late February, prior to the March 3 trade deadline, and won’t play until March. That’s best-case scenario.
“We have to do what’s right for his long-term health. He’s a father of two young children and husband, and we have to make sure that we’re doing right by him,” Dubas says. “As important as he is to us as a player, his health is paramount.”
“I’m sure he wants to be out there more than anyone in the world,” Marner adds. “It obviously sucks for him.”
After Muzzin’s February appointment with his specialist, Dubas can decide whether he is likely to return ahead of the post-season or if he can take the player’s $5.625 million cap hit (sitting on LTIR) and go shopping to fill his roster’s Muzzin-sized hole.
“Significant absence,” Keefe says. “On the ice, for sure. You see our penalty kill hasn’t been the same. When you lose a guy like that that you lean on so much, everybody else has to play more and in different situations than they’re maybe accustomed to — and that’s part of what we’re going through a bit on the back end.”
A source of early-season fluctuation and frustration, Toronto’s blue line needs cohesion. With the trade market quiet and the organizational depth under pressure, no easy fix is on the horizon.
Complicating matters in the near term is an oblique injury suffered by T.J. Brodie, Toronto’s most reliable and adaptable defenceman.
Prior to sitting out Saturday’s win over Vancouver, Brodie had played in every game since signing with the Leafs in 2020-21. Sliding to injured reserve, Brodie is expected to miss two weeks minimum.
How do the Maple Leafs cope?
Dubas says the first step is to shove more on the plate of developing D-men Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin and gauge how much they can handle.
Step 2: Make a trade.
“Even if (Sandin and Liljegren) elevate themselves, (we must decide) whether it’s going to be enough to help us really accomplish what we want to accomplish — and then evaluate the trade market and go from there.” Dubas says.
“Not in any real hurry to fill (Muzzin’s void) because we want to really see what these guys bring.”
Matt Murray will make his long-awaited second start of the season Tuesday, in Pittsburgh…. Centre Pontus Holmberg, 23, and right-shot defenceman Mac Hollowell, 24, were recalled from the AHL Marlies…. Depth D-men Victor Mete and Filip Kral are both dealing with injuries…. Nick Robertson is having a difficult time sticking in the lineup. After a three-game run last week, the 21-year-old winger appears to be a healthy scratch Tuesday in Pittsburgh…. With Ilya Samsonov progressing from his knee injury, the Maple Leafs are now practising with four goaltenders…. Fourth-stringer Joseph Woll suffered a setback in his shoulder recovery and also injured an ankle. He’ll finally practice in full with the Marlies Tuesday, a positive step. He’s still two to three weeks away from game action.
Maple Leafs projected lines Tuesday in Pittsburgh
Bunting – Matthews – Nylander
Kerfoot – Tavares – Marner
Engvall – Holmberg – Järnkrok
Aston-Reese – Kämpf – Malgin
Rielly – Benn
Giordano – Holl
Sandin – Liljegren