The Los Angeles Kings, a well-run team with a track record of recent success, made another smart move on Wednesday which should help that success continue, signing defenceman Jake Muzzin to a five-year contract extension.
That’s a very good deal for a legitimate difference-maker, but it’s especially good because most of the years on that contract are ones where Muzzin could have gone on the open market as an unrestricted free agent:
Nobody denies that Muzzin is a good hockey player. The 25-year-old is a complete defenceman with a nice collection of tools. He has pro size (6’3”, 214 pounds) and plays a physical game in the defensive zone. He can take and make a pass. He has a heavy shot. He’s a good skater. About the only problem with his game coming up the ranks was a perception that he would try to do too much and get caught running around, a difficulty that has ironed itself out with time and experience.
For a good player, a legitimate second-pairing defenceman, the contract Muzzin just signed is pretty reasonable but isn’t a steal. The question is whether Muzzin is a great player, a legitimate top-pairing defender for whom this deal represents a significant underpay given his talents.
Many around the league don’t tend to give full marks to Muzzin for his performance, instead crediting his outstanding partner Drew Doughty for his exceptional results.
It’s safe to say that Simmons’ view of Muzzin as a guy who wouldn’t be a top-six defender on some teams around the NHL falls well outside the norm, but his comments do reflect a belief that he benefits from playing alongside Doughty. That’s true, of course—any defenceman would benefit from playing regularly with one of the game’s best rearguards—but it does a disservice to suggest that Muzzin is simply a creation of Doughty as opposed to a legitimate standout on his own merits.
One way to examine the situation is to see how well Doughty has performed with Muzzin as opposed to other rearguards. Doughty has played at least an hour’s worth of five-on-five minutes with six different partners over the last two seasons; how does his work with Muzzin compare to his work with others?
|Drew Doughty's partners at five-on-five, 2012-14|
It’s no mystery why Muzzin has played so frequently with Doughty: By either goals or Corsi percentage he and Doughty have been far more successful than Doughty and any other partner. The key column to look at here is Corsi, the percentage of all attempted shots that went L.A.’s way with a given defensive pairing on the ice.
It’s interesting to compare Muzzin to a guy like Keaton Ellerby. Playing with Doughty means playing with one of the best defencemen in the league, but it also means playing against top opponents, because those are the minutes Doughty plays. Ellerby is a fringe NHL defenceman, and (in an admittedly short span together) Doughty wasn’t able to make him look like a guy who could survive those minutes. Muzzin not only survives, he thrives.
The other key item here is that Muzzin keeps thriving even when separated from Doughty:
|Jake Muzzin's partners, 2012-14|
Obviously, Muzzin plays tougher minutes when paired with Doughty than when paired with others, but over the last two years, when he’s on the ice it almost doesn’t matter who his partner is; the Kings have a habit of running up both the shot clock and the score. He’s legitimately a difference-maker in his own right.
That makes this a great deal for Los Angeles. The Kings could have followed the example of people like Simmons and been lulled into thinking that anybody would look good playing with Doughty. Instead, they recognized that Muzzin adds significant value to that pairing and acted accordingly. As a result, they have a player in the prime of his career signed for below market value until 2020.
That’s how a winning team keeps winning.