On Thursday, Jake Muzzin was asked about the course of the three weeks he spent with Team Canada, and what he gained as a piece of a puzzle that resulted in a tournament championship.
“When you’re in a room with that many great hockey players and leaders … it’s hard not to learn stuff, just being around them and seeing what they do in practicing and [how they] prepare and little tricks that guys have, stuff like that,” he said.
Jake – you know that you are one of those “guys,” right?
“Yeah, I do, but you can always learn from how different guys approach the game or their mindset like that,” he said. “You can always pick brains and stuff like that, so it was great. It was a very cool experience to be a part of.”
Of course, he’s not among the elite core of defensemen including Drew Doughty, Alex Pietrangelo or Shea Weber. Heck, his skill set and ability to push the pace of a game isn’t even as comprehensive as Kris Letang, who wasn’t even named to the team, and let’s not forget that Muzzin only entered into one tournament game. But while Muzzin’s place on the team was based in part because of his left-handed shot and history of having developed chemistry with Doughty, his presence was also based on his own merit – that of a multi-faceted, smooth-skating defender who can keep up with the play at both ends of the ice and check well as a 6-foot-3, 216-pound rearguard. And that’s not even calling to attention his sterling possession rates.
Muzzin was a player who first worked himself onto Canada’s radar during his performance at the 2015 World Championship, which was followed by a Doug Armstrong press conference last November in which he noted that the Kings defenseman was “playing very well.” By the end of November, there were other members of Canada’s management group that were in Muzzin’s corner. That the defender posted a standout season in his burgeoning career – one in which he showed that he wasn’t lifted by the partnership with Drew Doughty – solidified his case for a roster spot.
By the end of May, he knew that he was among the players Canada was looking at and “maybe had an opportunity” to make the team. Doug Armstrong called him the week that the final roster was announced, and late in the summer he was surrounded by a collection of the league’s most elite players as a member of the tournament’s clear favorite.
“When you only play a guy twice a year, you don’t really get to see how good some of these guys are, and you appreciate that when you practice with them every day and play with them,” Muzzin said. “A couple of the guys in the east, for sure, and even the guys in the west, some of the stuff that they do in practice and little things that they work on, it’s different, and different isn’t bad. You can learn from that. It was great to see new stuff.”
Even if those players happen to be San Jose Sharks. Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brent Burns were all tournament winners alongside Muzzin.
“They’re all good guys,” Muzzin said. “You put that aside for the tournament, and you’re on the same team and you work as a team to win. That being said, that tournament’s over, and my focus is here in L.A. to start winning games right away, and I’m sure everyone else’s focus is the same. That’s done with, and here we are, heading to Vegas for two exhibition games to win.”
He’ll play an integral role on Los Angeles this year, and Darryl Sutter has hinted in the preseason there may be a spot alongside Doughty again this year, as there had been predominantly in 2013-14 and 2014-15.
Unlike those previous seasons, Muzzin will be more entrenched of a presence, and one who came off both an encouraging season a year ago and was a champion at a major international tournament. He’s likely to play both games in Las Vegas this weekend.
“I mean, I think he’s obviously a top defenseman on our team,” Darryl Sutter said.
That’s something understood by Drew Doughty, who has won championships at both the club and international level alongside Muzzin.
“He obviously didn’t get to play too much, but he played in a couple games, and when he did play, he played well, but for him it was a great experience to meet some of the other guys, to watch what they could do on the ice,” Doughty said. “He’s a great teammate throughout the whole tournament too, even though he wasn’t playing. I’m looking forward to see how good of a season he’s going to have this year.”
To supplement his rising stature, there are still clearly areas for Muzzin to concentrate on.
“Year older and a little more experience, more situation, better penalty killer, hopefully stay healthy,” Sutter said of how he’d like to see his defenseman evolve. “I think last year was sort of the ‘next step’ in terms of him and Drew didn’t play together as much, which meant being almost a partner, a good partner. He played last year a lot with Marty where it wasn’t a dominant one guy, so I think it’s the next step that we need him to take. Muzz is the very, very same as Tanner, Tyler, Marty – those guys have to take the next step for our team.”
It’s something well understood by Muzzin, who will look to build on his eight-goal, 40-point, 82-game season that was followed by a goal and five points in five playoff games.
“Just continue being consistent and making others better and getting better,” Muzzin said. “I think if you focus on that you’re going to provide a good service for the team, and that results in wins. Continue working, working on things and hopefully playing some really good hockey here over the final two exhibition games.”