September 11, 2016 - 9:00 PM
Team Canada's most anonymous player takes a quick gaze around a dressing room bursting with superstars and realizes he doesn't quite fit.
A self-described late bloomer, 27-year-old Jake Muzzin is that rare player on Canada's World Cup team who had to hop a few extra stones to make the NHL. His junior head coach calls him a model of determination, someone who stumbled, got back up and ascended into an unlikely place as one of the nation's best defencemen.
"My path here is a little bit different than a lot of guys obviously," said Muzzin, a six-foot-three, 216-pound, bushy-bearded defender from the Los Angeles Kings.
His path started much like his teammates' before quickly veering off course.
The Woodstock, Ont., native was picked 11th overall in the 2005 OHL draft, six spots after future teammate Drew Doughty. But unlike Doughty, Muzzin had to sit out the entire 2005-06 season because of back surgery. Upon arrival in Sault Ste. Marie, the Greyhounds found him to be rough around the edges, a big kid, even at 16, who hadn't yet figured out his body.
An assistant coach at the time, Denny Lambert thinks Muzzin might have been packing 230 pounds onto an awkward frame.
"He was a man, but he was still a boy," said Lambert.
A former NHLer himself who later became the Greyhounds head coach, Lambert was tasked with getting the boy in shape, chuckling as he recalls Muzzin furiously riding the bike to shave a few pounds.
Muzzin played only 37 games in his first OHL season and was still quite raw, but the Pittsburgh Penguins were intrigued enough to select him in the fifth round at the 2007 NHL draft. Penguins amateur scout Jay Heinbuck had just moved to Woodstock with his wife around that point. He kept hearing about this defenceman from the area and eventually saw enough to deem him worthy of a pick.
Muzzin was poised with the puck, owned a terrific shot and loomed large physically, Heinbuck recalled. But he hadn't matured and his skating suffered from the awkwardness of his thick frame. He sputtered through two unspectacular seasons and was never signed by the Penguins. They felt other prospects were more worthy of a contract.
"Once I didn't sign there, it was a kick in the ass a little bit," Muzzin said.
Muzzin re-entered the draft in 2009. More than 200 players were picked in Montreal, none of them Muzzin.
Especially motivated after multiple slights, Muzzin dug into his training harder than ever that summer and returned to the Sault with renewed determination. He earned an invite to Nashville Predators training camp that fall, but was among the first cuts and returned to junior. It was clear that unlike Doughty, a prodigy who starred for the Olympic team at age 20, Muzzin needed more time to develop.
Back with the Greyhounds as an overager, Muzzin lit up the OHL, eventually winning the Max Kaminsky Trophy for top defenceman. It was the evolution everyone was waiting for.
"It took him until he was 20 years old to become Jake Muzzin and there's nothing wrong with that," Lambert said.
The Los Angeles Kings started poking around that season, though initially just to scout Muzzin's teammate, Jordan Nolan.
"And every time they went in to watch Jordan, Jake Muzzin stood out to them," said Rob Blake, the Kings assistant GM.
It was two and a half years later and with a different team, but Muzzin finally signed his first pro deal in January 2010.
It wasn't until his second NHL season that the Kings realized what they might have. Playing alongside Doughty as the Kings raced to another Stanley Cup — their second in three years — Muzzin thrived. In the past, Blake recalled, one good game would be followed by a couple stinkers. Suddenly, he was hitting the high notes consistently against top competition in the most pressure-packed games.
To Blake, a Hall of Fame defenceman who also hails from a small Ontario town, Muzzin represents the ideal defender for today's speedy, skilled game in that he's capable of making plays at one end and quickly ending them on the other. He credits the Kings coaching staff for teaching Muzzin to check rather than defend. In other words, he hunts the puck down instead of retreating in defence.
"You'll get D that can make extremely high-level plays or you've got solid (defensive) defencemen," Blake said. "But to be an elite one, in the category that I think Jake has put himself in with this World Cup, you have to do both and that's what made him pretty special."
Muzzin has averaged nine goals and 40 points over the past two seasons while boasting fine puck possession numbers in big minutes for the Kings.
Blake said the club was especially impressed with Muzzin's performance last season. After being split from Doughty for depth purposes, he showed he could prop up a lesser partner, as the elites of the game often do.
Muzzin sealed his entry into the upper class with an invitation to play for Canada, a prospect he'd never considered possible amid all the hiccups of his earlier years.
"I feel like I belong at this level," Muzzin said. "I'm excited to be here."
News from © The Canadian Press, 2016