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2016-17 in Review: After a -21 rating, should the Kings trade Jake Muzzin?

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The defenseman’s struggles were not due to decline, but instead were the result of a stale coaching system that stymied the offense. A workable deal will likely involve a key Kings forward to get a comparable defenseman in return.

NHL: Los Angeles Kings at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

For the next month or two, we’ll be taking a look at the players who made the Los Angeles Kings’ 2016-17 season what it was: a crushing disappointment that got people fired an up-and-down journey which managed to be both unusual and familiar. Rather than the good-bad-future-grade format we’ve used in past seasons, we’ll ask a crucial question and answer it using it what we saw this year.

After a -21 rating, should the Kings trade Jake Muzzin?

Now that Sidney “Best in the World” Crosby has led the Pittsburgh Penguins to their second Stanley Cup in a row... wait never mind, this is Jewels From The Crown and I have an article to write....

Oh yes, Jake Muzzin, the guy with the long playoff beard that’s fitting for the Penguins, but inappropriate for a lottery team. Perhaps that playoff beard weighed him down, as “sluggish” was the best word to describe Muzzin’s play this season.

Here, Muzzin’s misplay caused the puck to bounce off his stick, leading to a goal by Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins:

And here, Ryan Carpenter of the San Jose Sharks bounces the puck twice off the boards to move the play forward, leaving Muzzin stuck in molasses. It led to a two-on-one opportunity and Carpenter’s first NHL goal:

In the last two seasons, Muzzin has played by far the most alongside Alec Martinez. The Muzzin-Martinez tandem was predicted to shine in 2016-17. Remember when Kings fans were excited about Corsi, and Muzzin was the epitome? Muzzin and Martinez were ranked the number one defensive pairing by Bleacher Report in early 2015-16 for that reason alone. And in 2015-16, they delivered. When playing together in even strength situations, their CF% (Corsi For percentage) was 64.1%. Their GF60 (goals for per 60 minutes) was 2.3, and their GA60 (goals against per 60 minutes) was 1.8. Muzzin would later become recognized for his emergence as an effective defender in the NHL, by being selected for Team Canada in the World Cup of Hockey. For Muzzin, it represented his long-awaited entrance into the elite classes of hockey, after a rough start in which injuries and concerns of lack of athleticism kept him from being signed by the Penguins.

By the way, the idea that Muzzin benefited in the past from playing with Doughty is not set in stone, as Muzzin’s numbers remained strong even when he did not play alongside Doughty in 2015-16.

But 2016-17 was the opposite. Muzzin and Martinez started out well—Bleacher Report predicted them to be the tenth best pairing, and they started out as the Kings’ most consistent pairing. But a difficult January and February, in which Muzzin suffered two -4 performances in a month span, led writers like Jon Rosen to question what happened to the once-touted Muzzin-Martinez pairing. The statistics backed it up—even that even strength CF% declined in 2016-17 (60.9%). More glaringly, their GF60 was 2.03, and their GA60 was a painful 3.36.

Now after two missed playoffs in three seasons, a Google search of Muzzin finds articles and forum posts linking him to all kinds of trade ideas, previously for Gabriel Landeskog, and now for Evander Kane. For the record, his cap hit is $4 million until 2019-20. But is it wise?

According to Rosen’s article, Darryl Sutter said that Muzzin needed to get back to being more physical. A classic Sutter quote indeed. Let’s take a look at Muzzin’s career stats:

Jake Muzzin career statistics

Season Age GP G A PTS +/- PIM Shots Shot % Avg ice time HIT BLK Takeaways Giveaways
Season Age GP G A PTS +/- PIM Shots Shot % Avg ice time HIT BLK Takeaways Giveaways
2010-11 21 11 0 1 1 -2 0 8 0 13:43 22 2 2 7
2012-13 23 45 7 9 16 16 35 77 9.1 17:54 70 29 7 23
2013-14 24 76 5 19 24 8 58 175 2.9 19:02 169 82 14 57
2014-15 25 76 10 31 41 -4 22 173 5.8 22:42 186 108 18 68
2015-16 26 82 8 32 40 7 64 203 3.9 23:04 197 135 13 68
2016-17 27 82 9 19 28 -21 46 184 4.9 22:18 162 122 15 70
Career 372 39 111 150 4 225 820 4.8 21:06 806 478 69 293
Source: hockey-reference.com

From this table we can determine that Muzzin has suffered a mild decline in hits and PIM over the last two seasons. The most glaring declines, however, are in his assists and plus-minus rating.

Wait, assists and plus-minus rating? If you score an assist, by definition your plus-minus goes up too. If we add 13 more assists to Muzzin’s 2016-17 total to make it match the 32 assists from 2015-16, then Muzzin’s plus-minus rating increases to a more manageable -8. Could it be that Muzzin’s statistics are suffering because the team isn’t scoring?

Could it be that the dreaded Sutter defense-first-lockdown-possession-big-but-slow system was the culprit?

To test this theory, let’s compare the plus-minus ratings of several Kings who played regularly over the last two seasons:

Plus-minus ratings, 2015-16 and 2016-17

Player 2015-16 2016-17 Difference
Player 2015-16 2016-17 Difference
Anze Kopitar 34 -10 Down 44
Jeff Carter 18 2 Down 16
Tyler Toffoli 35 6 Down 29
Tanner Pearson 11 5 Down 6
Drew Doughty 24 8 Down 16
Jake Muzzin 7 -21 Down 28
Alec Martinez 16 -17 Down 33
Brayden McNabb 11 1 Down 10
Dustin Brown -5 -4 Down 1
Kyle Clifford -1 -2 Down 1
Trevor Lewis -10 -6 Up 4
Marian Gaborik -6 -4 Up 2

Yes, this table illustrates it all. The top forwards (Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Tyler Toffoli, and Tanner Pearson) experienced heavy declines in plus-minus. So did the big four defensemen (Doughty, Muzzin, Martinez, and Brayden McNabb). Third and fourth line players (Dustin Brown, Kyle Clifford, Trevor Lewis, and Marian Gaborik) mostly held serve.

Say what you want about the Kings tuning out Darryl Sutter. Say what you want about the Kings lacking leadership in 2016-17, the type they missed in Mike Richards, Jarret Stoll, and Matt Greene. But in the end, the physical, defense-first, possession-based system of Darryl Sutter had been a big handicap on the offensive production of the top players of the Kings.

It is my hope that new coaching and leadership will rejuvenate Muzzin and make a trade unnecessary. Muzzin is for real; he has proven he can play at a talented level without Doughty. Previously I wrote, and you mostly agreed, that McNabb is not the great white hope for the Kings defense. And we’re not gonna obtain Sidney “Best in the World” Crosby via trade. Teams will likely give up a prospect and pick, two picks, or a disgruntled forward for Muzzin. This is not enough, and the Kings will have to package another player, perhaps Toffoli or Adrian Kempe, with Muzzin to get someone better in return.

I’m gonna boldly say it—the Kings only have two more seasons to be a contender. Why is that? The Kings will have an awful hard time scrounging up the change necessary to accede to Doughty’s $10 million demand when he becomes a free agent after 2018-19. By then, Kopitar, Carter, and Jonathan Quick will be well into their thirties, past their prime. Kings fans may talk much about “playing the kids,” but the window for the Cup core of Kopitar, Carter, Quick, and Doughty is fast closing. The Kings are still very much in win-now mode, and cannot afford to lose proven defensemen.

In the end, a defensive shortage will likely cause Muzzin to stay. They will buy out Greene, and McNabb is not good enough, which makes them short on defensemen if Muzzin leaves. The Kings can pull off a creative move that allows for a comparable defenseman in return, but it will likely involve trading away a talented forward. Unless they do that, they must keep the proven talent of Muzzin and hopefully revive their second defensive line.