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What to Do When Your Jake Muzzin is Hurt

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With the defenseman out for most (or all) of the final stretch run, how will John Stevens adjust?

NHL: Los Angeles Kings at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Jake Muzzin is a very good defenseman. After years of struggle and one (1) fifth-place Norris vote in 2015-16, I think the entire Los Angeles Kings fanbase has managed to agree on that much. Last year was a struggle for Muzzin, whose typically strong possession numbers were undermined by the Kings’ .893 save percentage with Muzzin on the ice at even strength. That was the worst in the league for any defenseman (according to Natural Stat Trick, min. 50 games), but this year that’s turned around to an almost unbelievable degree.

As a result, Muzzin’s goal differential numbers have been very strong, and it’s a lot easier to praise the elements he always brings: the ability to drive play and limit shots against, consistent scoring output, and an ability to thrive with more inexperienced members of the defense. These are the elements LA will be missing on a “week-to-week” basis.

The primary question — other than who steps up to grow a larger beard in Muzzin’s absence — is how John Stevens will use his remaining defensemen. Muzzin missed three games earlier this season, and looking at the way John Stevens deployed his blueliners in those games might offer an indication of how he adapts to the absence of #6.

LA Kings Defensemen - Ice Time without Jake Muzzin

Defenseman Game 1 Game 2 Game 3 Average w/o Muzzin Average, 2017-18
Defenseman Game 1 Game 2 Game 3 Average w/o Muzzin Average, 2017-18
Drew Doughty 25:29 25:37 27:58 26:21 26:44
Christian Folin 16:37 18:06 16:14 16:59 15:34
Derek Forbort 21:36 22:18 19:44 21:13 20:56
Kevin Gravel 17:44 15:14 14:25 15:48 14:05
Kurtis MacDermid 9:56 13:32 14:16 12:35 11:36
Alec Martinez 23:23 22:55 24:28 23:35 22:44

Surprisingly, Stevens did not use Drew Doughty more than expected. Instead, he leaned more heavily on his other defensemen, and most noticeably, handed additional minutes to his fourth and fifth defensemen. It’s not a given he’ll do this again, of course. Replacing Kurtis MacDermid’s 12 minutes a game with Dion Phaneuf’s 19 minutes a game alters the decision, as does the remarkable stability of Stevens’ pairs since Phaneuf’s arrival. Muzzin has pulled a few shifts with Drew Doughty in high-leverage situations but he’s largely stayed on Christian Folin’s left. Kevin Gravel is expected to slide in, meaning there’s no need to shuffle, but the expectation would seem to be that Gravel and Folin would play the 15 minutes they have been averaging.

That leaves 90 minutes (or so) for Doughty, Derek Forbort, Phaneuf, and Alec Martinez to fill. Add up each blueliner’s season average for the Kings (27, 21, 19, and 23 minutes, respectively) and you get... 90 minutes. So this doesn’t have to be a difficult equation. We’ve already got some indication of how Muzzin will be replaced on special teams; Phaneuf has moved onto PP1 and Gravel has slotted into PP2, while Folin has been a capable penalty killer in limited action.

There’s always a chance John Stevens will let Doughty play 35 minutes a game like he’s always dreamed of, and we discussed that possibility on yesterday’s Jewelcast with only minimal sarcasm! More likely? Stevens is going to stay the course, at least in the near term. And if Gravel falters, Paul LaDue is on deck, and there’s a wild card up Stevens’ sleeve now as well.