Will Muzzin put Maple Leafs over the top, or will the pressure be too much?

Jake Muzzin is a top-four rearguard who possesses a good first pass, offensive upside and shutdown ability. Acquiring him from Los Angeles for prospects Carl Grundstrom, Sean Durzi and a first-round pick puts Toronto one step closer to realizing their Stanley Cup potential. It also leaves enough in the system to trade for Alex Pietrangelo.
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Back in the summer of 2016, Jack Muzzin was coming off years in which he won a Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings and a World Championship with Team Canada. When he was named to the Canadian roster for the World Cup of Hockey at the age of 27, his confidence was soaring.

But Muzzin ended up playing only one game in that tournament, a 4-1 win over Team Europe in the last game of the round-robin. Aside from that, he was on the outside looking in, being bag skated after practice and having little impact on Canada’s championship squad. Those close to the Kings say that put Muzzin into a funk that took him quite a while from which to emerge. The coach of that Canadian team was none other than Mike Babcock, who is now his boss in Toronto.

How Babcock deals with Muzzin and how he reacts to the scrutiny of being in a hockey-mad market will go a long way to determining how well the Leafs did in their trade for Muzzin, one where they managed to get a quality defenseman without compromising their roster. When you build up assets and manage them well, those are the kinds of deals you can make. Giving up a solid future third-liner in Carl Grundstrom, a decent defense prospect in Sean Durzi and a first-round pick, the Leafs paid pretty much the going rate and made themselves better in the short-term, while the Kings improved their fortunes in the long-term.

But playing in Los Angeles is an entirely different scenario than plying your trade in Toronto. Not only will Muzzin land in Toronto while most of the city is digging itself out of a snowstorm, he’ll also be in a place where the scrutiny and criticism is at an infinitely elevated level from the fan base. Just ask Jake Gardiner, the player Muzzin will almost certainly replace next season. Those who know Muzzin best claim he responds far better to positive reinforcement than negative, both from those coaching and people in the stands. How those two segments react when things are not going well will dictate what kind of performance Jake Muzzin gives them.

But there is little doubt the Maple Leafs will be a better, more well-rounded team coming out of the all-star break and their bye week than they were going in. Landing Muzzin gives them more options on the blueline, allowing them to solidify their top four and move others into positions with less responsibility and ice time. “The key is his ability to play at the top end of our defense, play in all situations, play against the other teams’ top players,” Leafs GM Kyle Dubas said in a conference call Monday night. “He’s proven himself over a good career to be able to move the puck and to excel playing against high quality competition.”

The Leafs don’t play until Friday night in Detroit, where it’s expected the left-shot Muzzin will play the right side of the ice on the first pairing with Morgan Rielly. That would likely leave them with a second pairing of Gardiner on the left and Nikita Zaitsev on the right, with a third pairing of Travis Dermott on the left and Ron Hainsey on the right. There is a chance Hainsey and Zaitsev might switch pairings as well. Muzzin has played the right side during his career, most recently with Alec Martinez, but there is little doubt he was more successful and productive when he played the left side beside Drew Doughty, which was the Kings’ first pairing when they won the Cup in 2014.

“I’ve played a little bit on the right and more so my career on the left,” Muzzin said, “but I’d be fine either way. There’s good enough ‘D’ back there where we can figure something out. I’m excited to come and to put on the Leafs jersey and we’ll let everything else worry about itself.”

Not sure that Babcock will be willing to let everything worry about itself, but he will almost certainly allow time for adjustment. Those who have watched the Kings this season claim that Muzzin has been right there with Doughty when it comes to the team’s best defensemen. He makes a very good first pass, which is important to Dubas and Babcock, who like to see their team stretch the ice. He’s an excellent defender and can at the very least play the second power-play unit. He’s also under contract for another year at a very team-friendly $4 million cap hit, which will be important to a team that has to sign Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Kasperi Kapanen to new deals this summer.

As far as the Kings are concerned, they’re getting two players who will be able to contribute and a low first-round pick to go along with what they hope is the first pick overall. At the moment, they have the second-worst points percentage in the league, and they must be quietly hoping that giving Muzzin away drops them to the bottom of the standings.

It’s a good deal for the Maple Leafs, one which may or may not change their complexion. Now, if they’re really looking to hit a home run, right-shot star Alex Pietrangelo is still out there. Even with this deal, the Leafs still have the young players and prospects to make it happen. Get Pietrangelo before the deadline and now you’re talking about a team with a very, very real chance of winning the Stanley Cup.

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