How Jake Muzzin Can Fulfill His Potential on Los Angeles Kings' Blue Line

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How Jake Muzzin Can Fulfill His Potential on Los Angeles Kings' Blue Line
Noah Graham/Getty Images

Despite a strong beginning to his NHL career, Los Angeles Kings blueliner Jake Muzzin still boasts untapped promise.

The numbers he’s registered thus far are reason for optimism, and he appears to have surged in confidence over the past year following a rocky 2013 postseason. 

Granted, some of that progress may boil down to the steadiness of his regular partner, Drew Doughty, who ranks among the very finest defensemen in the world. The two-time Stanley Cup and Olympic champion is a paragon of composure and all-around brilliance, continually placing his teammates in positions to thrive with crafty passes, elusive breakouts and sterling defense—and Muzzin may well be the greatest beneficiary of his talents.

At this point in time, declaring the 25-year-old a true first-pairing rearguard is premature. Reaching that status down the line is certainly possible, although it will require a few tweaks to his game.

 

Puck Management

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Strictly in terms of controlling shot attempts, Muzzin is unparalleled among defensemen. He has led the league’s entire blue-line corps in Corsi percentage in consecutive seasons.

That’s remarkable.

As Jewels from the Crown notes, every single defenseman who's played with Muzzin in the past two seasonsDoughty includedsaw his numbers skyrocket in this area.

Few playerslet alone fairly inexperienced onesare as capable of driving play toward the opposition’s net. Simply put, Muzzin shoots the puck incessantly. That's obviously a tremendous asset, as it suggests the Kings own the biscuit when he's on the ice.

Furthermore, he’s improved his execution, finding ways to filter his bids through traffic where blocked shots were once the bane of his existence. From 2013 to 2013-14, his Corsi percentage dropped from 63.1 to 61.1. However, his average of shots on net per 60 minutes rose from 5.7 to 7.3.

That’s a positive sign as it relates to decision-making.

On a club which struggles to score in the regular seasonand frequently scores ugly when it does find the back of the neta defenseman who both looks to pull the trigger and gets his shots through on a consistent basis is critical.

In Game 2 of the team's quarterfinal matchup against San Jose, Muzzin displayed that knack by outwaiting Tommy Wingels, changing the angle of the shot and beating Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi from the point:

In addition to his impressive metrics, he contributes to L.A.’s cause with an assertive mentality, frequently jumping up into the play to bolster the team’s attack.

A static offense is easy to contain. Throw moving parts into the equation and the task becomes exponentially tougher.

In the second round against the Anaheim Ducks, Muzzin shrugged off the man assigned to him and instantly pushed lower into the offensive zone, turning a three-on-three into an outnumbered situation.

Anaheim’s defensive posture was completely baffled by the introduction of another threat, and as a result, Muzzin potted a goal within seconds of his choice to creep in:

By directing the puck and his body toward the other team’s cage, he managed a solid 24 points and plus-eight rating in 76 regular-season games last season. He followed that up with 12 points and a plus-six rating in 26 playoff tilts.

The flip side of his can-do tendencies is that the soon-to-be third-year pro gambles.

After a failed outlet pass in October, he continued to drift up the ice instead of recognizing the possibility of a counterattack and backing off. In the time required for the New York Rangers to burst ahead, Muzzin was left in the dust, affording Brad Richards and Derick Brassard an undeserved two-on-one break:

Against the Philadelphia Flyers, he eschewed the safe clearance along the wall in favor of a hopeless pass through the middle of the ice. It was intercepted by Claude Giroux, and the puck was deposited behind Jonathan Quick moments later:

There’s no doubt that Muzzin’s puck possession and eagerness are useful traits. However, he has to learn to take what’s there and pick his spots rather than indiscriminately launch himself into the offensive mix.

By understanding when to force the issue, he’ll force opponents to earn every chance they get.

Should the Kings minimize errors of this nature, penetrating their reigning top-ranked defense would become that much stiffer a challenge.

 

Physicality

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Standing at 6’3” and 214 pounds, Muzzin is a sturdy blueliner who isn’t afraid to throw his body around.

He isn’t the most active hitter, but when he decides to unload, he can steamroll opponents. Marcus Kruger became all too familiar with Muzzin’s destructive potential in the Western Conference Final:

Earlier in the regular season, he took on a larger target in the 6’2”, 209-pound Nino Niederreiter, catching him with his head down and rattling him:

That type of bruising play helps the Kings out considerably, making the opposition think twice and slowing its puck movement in the neutral zone. With veterans Matt Greene and Robyn Regehr likely to decline even further in the coming years, Muzzin’s penchant for punishing checks will come in handy.

Doughty, Slava Voynov and Alec Martinez can hold their own, but there’s an added sense of swagger to a blue line that can deliver massive hits like the ones above.

Beyond highlight-reel material, physicality is crucial in board battlesa staple of Kings games.

Against the Ducks in the second round, Muzzin displayed his strength down low, fending off Matt Beleskey’s forecheck and sending a nifty dish to Doughty to initiate the breakout. Marian Gaborik and Anze Kopitar garnered all the plaudits on this goal, but it was Muzzin’s fundamentals and poise under fire that kickstarted the sequence:

Harnessing his physical game will be key, though. Muzzin has to take stock of the situation in front of him and grasp the consequences of his decisions moving forward.

In Game 1 of the third round, trailing 2-1 late in regulation, he attempted to plow over Bryan Bickell inside the offensive blue line. Unfortunately, even if he had bulldozed him, the Blackhawks still would have been off to the races:

The right choice here would have been to peel back and turn a would-be three-on-one into something far less likely to yield a goal. Instead, Chicago is granted a glorious chance to score the insurance marker, which it does courtesy of Jonathan Toews.

Whether or not Muzzin develops his split-second instincts in the future remains to be seen.

Dion Phaneuf, who was both lauded for his bone-crushing hits and lambasted for the ones he’d miss in Calgary and Toronto, seldom tries to lay opponents out anymore.

Muzzin losing his snarl would be really unfortunate. By that same token, he must pay greater attention to the overall picture before seeking out his next victim.

Remaining aggressive is important, but focusing that aggression is even more so.

 

Outlook

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In some ways, Muzzin embodies the youthful exuberance that the Kings often lack. He bolsters the attack with his forays up the ice and hits like a truck.

However, he has to fine-tune his torrid showings in order to solidify his status as a top-pairing blueliner. The margin for error is quite slim in the Western Conference, and there’s no room for loose cannons next to a pivotal minute-muncher such as Doughty.

As recently as the start of 2013-14, head coach Darryl Sutter was keeping Muzzin on a short leash.

To his credit, he has improved his defensive coverage and is much calmer now in the face of pressure than he was a year ago.

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As his quality of competition spiked from third-lowest to second-highest among L.A. defensemen between the 2013 and 2013-14 regular seasons, his goals against per 60 minutes only rose from 1.32 to 1.63. In the playoffs, his quality of competition went from the very lowest to the very highest, and his GA/60 inched from 1.61 to 1.65.

In fact, he’s become so reliable that Sutter granted him 30.5 percent of the team’s short-handed ice time in the playoffs. In the previous postseason, that number was a microscopic 0.3 percent.

He accomplished this while more or less maintaining his production, too.

Muzzin has come a long, long way since joining the team as an unrestricted free agent in 2010. Following a jittery freshman campaign, he's emerged as a more dependable and assured complement to Doughty, squaring off against and generally getting the better of top lines on a nightly basis.

If he can continue his growth and strike a closer balance between smarts and all-out bluster, he’ll etch himself a long-term spot on the Western Conference's preeminent pairing.

 

Advanced statistics courtesy of Extra Skater and Behind the Net.

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