On January 28, just after the NHL All-Star break, the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that a huge trade had been completed, potentially filling the most obvious flaw in the team’s roster.
The Maple Leafs sent prospect Carl Grundstrom, the contract negotiation rights for unsigned defenseman Sean Durzi, and their first-round selection in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft to the Los Angeles Kings for veteran defenseman Jake Muzzin.
Over Muzzin’s time with the Kings, he’s developed into one of the league’s premier defensive defensemen, rarely missing games, and regularly posting positive ratings. Over 50 total playoff appearances as a King, Muzzin amassed seven goals, 20 points, a +4 rating, and won the Stanley Cup in 2014.
This was a smart trade by the Toronto Maple Leafs because their biggest problem area was in defense. As an experienced and trusted defenseman, Muzzin looks to plug that gap and make the Maple Leafs a better team. But does trading for Muzzin make the Buds the favorites to win the 2019 Stanley Cup?
Toronto making gains
The important thing to note about this trade is that the Toronto Maple Leafs managed to acquire a top-class defenseman without giving up any pieces of their NHL lines, thus only made gains in the deal.
Despite the influx of talent into the Maple Leafs, they still boast one of the best prospect pools in the league. Grundstrom was certainly one of their blue-chip prospects, but there are plenty of other highly-rated prospects poised for NHL fame over the next couple of years.
At 29-years-old, Jake Muzzin is in his prime and has fit into the Maple Leafs lines with ease. Playing in the top pairing alongside Morgan Rielly as well as starting recent games with Nikita Zaitsev on the second line, Muzzin has already made a very evident impact on his new team.
In the nine games since his move, Muzzin has collected one goal and four points while averaging 18:37 minutes per game. He’s been very impressive defensively, only giving up one minor penalty and holding a +6 rating, which is twice as good as the next closest Toronto defenseman since January 28. With the former King in the lines, Toronto’s overall statistics have also improved across defensive areas, including their penalty kill which has moved from 81.1 percent to 85.7 percent, and their goals against per game average has decreased from 2.85 to 2.66.
Despite being incredibly overrated by the bookies coming into the season, Toronto had a glaring problem in defense and needed a player who could function in all phases of the game but most importantly protect the net. Muzzin lays out plenty of hits and seems to draw shots to the body, already making the Maple Leafs a much better team.
Maple Leafs move to being third-favorites
At the start of the season, bookmakers mistakenly put the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs at the same odds of around +800 to win the Stanley Cup, thinking that adding John Tavares would be enough for the Buds. This allowed the more savvy NHL fans to make the most of the great odds on the Bolts, who are now rubbing their hands, sniggering away with the team looking simply too good with a 15-point lead on the next closest team in the standings with 23 games left to go.
With the Lightning now at +250, the Maple Leafs have been able to work their way back to be level with the Winnipeg Jets and San Jose Sharks at +800 following the All-Star break, going 6-2-1 with Muzzin in the team. Toronto is certainly a better team than it was this time last month, but they simply cannot compare to the Lightning head-to-head.
There is a bit of history which might play into Toronto’s favor, however, as over the last four years, the Lightning have lost twice in the Conference Finals and once in the Stanley Cup Finals, failing to qualify in 2016/17. So, the Bolts have been known to choke in the postseason. That said, as it stands, the Maple Leafs would need to get past the Boston Bruins – who bested them last year – and would then face the Lightning in the second round, which Tampa Bay has breezed past 4-2, 4-1, and 4-1 over the last four years.
Jake Muzzin has certainly improved the Toronto Maple Leafs a great deal, but when it comes down to it, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks that they can out-duel the Lightning in the playoffs this season.