If you haven't already, it's time to take Jake Muzzin seriously. He's no longer a late-blooming overachiever, riding shotgun with superstar Drew Doughty. He's a crucial ingredient of what may become a championship mixture for the Kings this season. Interestingly enough, the person who saw the breakout coming is the person who cast a shadow over Muzzin the first place: Doughty.
It was last December in Toronto and the visiting Kings had just beaten the Maple Leafs. Muzzin had emerged from an early-season funk, in which coach Darryl Sutter scratched him for five games because of turnovers. He was beginning to gel on a pairing with Doughty, so I asked Doughty how he felt about Muzzin's play to date. I expected some encouraging, carefully chosen words protecting a young player battling just to stay in the lineup. Instead I got hyperbole.
"Muzzin's a great player, he has so much skill and we love playing together," Doughty said. "The one thing we're so good at is, when teams get in on the forecheck, we don't spend time in our own zone, because we use each other to break out the puck. But at the same time we can do it on our own. So that's why we're such a good pair together. He's grown so much defensively that I'm hoping for many years we can be partners together. Once you get used to being with someone so often, you're going to make a great pair."
I was shocked. Doughty going on record saying he wanted to stay partners with Muzzin for years? Talk about an endorsement. And it appears No. 8 foresaw that Muzzin would put it all together. Months later, he's a playoff force for L.A. alongside Doughty, logging 21 big minutes per game, a huge increase over the 15 he averaged in the 2013 playoffs. He's racked up five goals and 11 points in 18 games thanks to creative decisions with the puck, like this one from Game 4 of the Western Conference final:
In the 2012 edition of THN Future Watch, Muzzin was likened to a less physical Scott Stevens. That seemed superlative, but he's in the ballpark of that comparison now. He's physically nasty when he needs to be, his shot is dangerous and he's also one of the league's best possession players. His Corsi Close percentage is the best in the NHL among defensemen two seasons running. True, Doughty's was second this season, so it's fair to wonder if he carried Muzzin a bit. But Muzzin's Corsi relative to his team's rating when he wasn't on the ice was sixth among NHL blueliners, whereas Doughty's was 22nd.
If you ask me, Doughty is the best all-around defenseman in the NHL today, but that can no longer explain why Muzzin looks so good these days. The 25-year-old has earned his way into a permanent NHL role and performances like Game 4's may end up the norm, not the exception.
And if the numbers and highlights don't sell you on Muzzin as an excellent long-term partner for Doughty, remember what Doughty said one December evening.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin