"Coming back is never easy"
Jake Muzzin was more candid than you'd expect when discussing his return from the injury, a concussion, that kept him out of the Maple Leafs lineup for the better part of the past month.
The veteran defender went down on Jan. 15 versus the St. Louis Blues, causing the Leafs' medical staff to take an overly cautious approach to his recovery, before ultimately returning to action on Feb. 10 versus the Calgary Flames.
It wouldn't be unfair to say that Muzzin didn't look like his normal self in his first game back, however. He hasn't for the bulk of this season, really, with Muzzin having battled through nagging ailments since day one that have restricted his mobility and made him seemingly hesitant to engage how he's used to.
That hesitancy crept particularly into the physical aspect of Muzzin's game during his most banged-up stretches, an area in which he usually thrives.
"I know, for me, I have to be physical," explained Muzzin to reporters following the Leafs' full-team skate on Saturday morning.
"It's when I'm most effective."
Muzzin has never battled injuries quite like this before. Even dating back to his time in Los Angeles, the former King suited up in no fewer than 74 games each year before heading to Toronto via trade in 2019, with that ever-present durability only making him a more valuable piece of his team's blueline.
This season, however, has thrown Muzzin off his rhythm. And he's only now getting it back.
A less-than-100-percent Muzzin has been perhaps the most devastating blow the Leafs have been dealt in 2021-22. Muzzin is the Jenga piece that keeps their defense tower from collapsing. He's part of their lineup's bedrock. When healthy and effective, Muzzin is imperative to Toronto's roster construction, not only providing them a luxury to stash on their second pair, but allowing Justin Holl to tread water just enough to keep pace with opposing top-four matchups.
That latter part, in particular, has simply not happened this year.
Left largely to his own devices, Holl's play has cratered of late, taking him from the fine back-end contributor he was for the past two seasons and turning him into a liability at both ends of the ice.
The timing of this cataclysmic drop is not exactly a coincidence, either, given that the worst season of Holl's career correlates with Muzzin's most injury-riddled.
A dysfunctional Muzzin-Holl causes a chain reaction. With Holl unable to handle top-four duty, he's bumped down to the third pair, forcing someone else to come up and take his place. The lucky lad in question thus far has been Timothy Liljegren, a 22-year-old rookie who, despite looking capable at the NHL level to this point, is now tasked with shutting down some of the best his opponents have to offer night after night despite his limited experience.
Is it fair to throw a youngster like that directly into the deep end? And is it even good for his development? Which, by the way, still matters here.
The same can be said for Rasmus Sandin, even younger than Liljegren, who found himself thrust into top-four duty alongside Muzzin on Thursday night versus the Pittsburgh Penguins, only this time being forced to play his off-side.
Once again, you have to wonder if it's too much to ask. And given how the Muzzin-Sandin pairing was out-chanced, out-shot, and out-scored on Thursday while winning just 25 percent of the expected goals, the answer is leaning, at least for now, towards "yes".
No matter how you slice it, the Leafs would seemingly enter the playoffs with a rookie in their top-four if the postseason began today. That's not ideal.
The good news, though, is that Muzzin appears to be hitting his stride again. And at the perfect time too, no less.
Slowly but surely, he's come alive. Muzzin played perhaps his best game of the year versus Pittsburgh, dolling out his trademark physicality and activating the rush on occasion while also taking a heavy dose of defensive-zone faceoffs alongside a partner he'd never played with before and ultimately limiting a team led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to a single goal.
That's the Muzzin the Leafs want to see. That's the Muzzin they need to see, really. And when it comes to indicators, his last performance is about as good as you could hope for.
"For a guy who plays a physical game, and you're coming off an injury of that nature, it takes a little bit of time to get back in the pace and become comfortable with asserting yourself physically," explained Sheldon Keefe following his team's skate on Saturday.
"There's an adjustment period there for sure. And everyone handles it differently. I don't think Muzzin has had a tremendous amount of experience in dealing with that particular type of injury, so there can be some anxiety associated with it, and he's playing his way through it"
The big difference now is that, while Muzzin had been "playing through" various physical injuries earlier this season, the only hurdles that remain now are those in his mind. And with each successful body check and board battle, Muzzin's confidence to re-engage physically will only grow in time.
As for his defense partners, Muzzin now turns his focus to a new role, as the de facto mentor for Toronto's pair of young defenders.
"They're helping me and I'm helping them," laughed Muzzin when asked if he relishes being a sort-of father figure to the Sandin and Liljegren duo.
"You play off each other, so it's good for everyone."
And when Muzzin is firing on all cylinders, that's good for everyone, too.