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2017-18 in Review: Muzzin and Martinez, Divergent Defensemen

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Hey, when did Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez become so... different?

NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Los Angeles Kings Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

While the 2017-18 season ended with more of a whimper than Kings fans hoped for, we still learned a lot about the team, its players, and the direction for the future. Over the course of the next month, we’ll dive into the Kings’ roster and take a look at what worked, what didn’t work, and what things might look like in the coming season. The next installment in our Year in Review series looks at two defensive stalwarts.

Muzzin and Martinez. Martinez and Muzzin. It’s always flowed right off the tongue, hasn’t it?

As recently as last summer, it was easy to think of the Los Angeles Kings’ #2 and #3 defensemen as one two-headed, modestly-compensated, minute-chomping monster on the back end. Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez have seen their fortunes largely tied together since they each found their way to the Kings. Both players fought through some early healthy scratches to become a key piece of a Cup winner in their second NHL season — Martinez in 2011-12, Muzzin in 2013-14 — and since that second Cup, it’s become impossible to imagine the Kings’ defense without either one. (And that defense has stayed pretty dang good.)

Why do we always pair them in our heads? For one, they’ve spent a bunch of time paired together on the ice. According to Corsica, Muzzin and Martinez have spent 2,513 minutes on the ice together, including regular season and playoff action. That’s nearly 42 hours of #27 and #6. More than that, though, is how their paths through Darryl Sutter’s doghouse and into a solid role mirrored one another. Both players were Corsi monsters early in their career (the only time I ever spoke about the Kings on Fox Sports West, I called Jake Muzzin a “Corsi God,” and I do not regret it) as they took advantage of some sheltered minutes. Each player then landed shifts with a more seasoned player to grow their abilities. And once they became lineup fixtures they found consistency, shoo-ins for 5+ goals and 25+ points over a full season. They’re even making the same amount of money.

Last season was a painful one for both players, and by the end of a year where Martinez and Muzzin carried two of the worst on-ice save percentages in the NHL, we were asking whether it was the end of their time as partners. It wasn’t entirely, and it probably never will be, but it turns out that it was the end of their time as partners in our heads. Now, Alec and Jake have chosen different paths.

Or, perhaps, different paths have chosen them. The method of bounce-back that we saw from both players was eerily similar...

... but they each did it their way. As if to underscore the point, Martinez and Muzzin spent about 13 as much time together as they did last season, and were much worse at carrying the play when they did skate beside one another. You can chalk a little of that up to more defensive zone starts, but it’s a pretty significant drop:

Martinez and Muzzin - Pairing Statistics, 2015-18

Season TOI CF% Rel CF% GF% Rel GF% xGF% Rel xGF% PDO ZSR
Season TOI CF% Rel CF% GF% Rel GF% xGF% Rel xGF% PDO ZSR
2015-2016 853.63 55.91 -0.82 56.67 3.26 59.07 5.61 100.09 50.82
2016-2017 786 53.93 -1.22 36.62 -16.65 52.51 -1.77 93.33 51.82
2017-2018 288.93 46.8 -2.56 52.17 1.91 44 -2.85 102.2 42.2
stats relative to team. numbers from corsica.hockey.

The goals-against numbers were fine, though, and they stayed that way even when paired with new players. That was where we saw the greatest difference between the two.

After spending time with Muzzin, Christian Folin, and Derek Forbort, Alec Martinez was essentially stapled to Dion Phaneuf when Phaneuf was traded from Ottawa. Their on-ice possession numbers were, as most of us expected, pretty horrendous. But no one was particularly peeved, because as we said in February:

The pair mimic each other’s styles and will likely be a typical “stopper” pair playing mostly in their own end, and even if their Corsi numbers stay poor, they’ll get judged solely on whether they can keep pucks out of the net.

Seven goals for and seven goals against while that pair was on the ice at even strength in 2017-18. Fine by me.

Martinez completed his evolution into a shot-blocking positional blueliner while playing with Phaneuf, and bailed his new buddy out of some tough spots even as his increasingly stay-at-home style landed LA in other tough spots. He played a staggering 32:11 in a REGULAR SEASON REGULATION GAME after Derek Forbort left said game, then topped it by playing 44:58 in LA’s Game 2 loss to Vegas. Stevens can use him in any situation, and he can expect Martinez to score 9 or 10 goals even if he’s in his own end more often than not. We know what Alec Martinez will be next season, and he’ll be an even more intense version if he flanks Phaneuf. If the pucks stay out of the net — not a given — LA should be fine with that.

Muzzin, on the other hand, ended up being a long-term mate for Folin after the Phaneuf trade. Stevens often did not have a clear “third pairing,” and Muzzin’s ice time took a hit, averaging almost exactly 20 minutes per game in the final month of the regular season. That was before he was injured by a Micheal Ferland hit, hobbling him and providing an inauspicious conclusion to what was largely a very good season.

Before that, though, he was nails. Muzzin has always been excellent when skating with Drew Doughty, but he’s quietly been nearly as good with other players. Muzzin benefited from great goaltending just as Martinez did in 2017-18. Even excluding that, though, he showed an increased ability to carry the load with less experienced players on his side. Case in point: Christian Folin, a depth defenseman, was consistently in the lineup on a team with five guys who were essentially scratch-proof. That’s a credit to Folin, but also a credit to his most consistent partner.

Muzzin still hits guys, exhibits a long reach, and shoots A LOT and scores... ENOUGH, I guess. His career high assist total was a function of a more productive offense, but it also was a function of strong offensive instincts, which Muzzin has become known for. A final encouraging note: he and Paul LaDue had awful goal luck in 2016-17 and overcame it in 2017-18, with LA scoring five goals in their 90 minutes paired together. We wrote about LaDue on Monday and like his chances to carve out a role with LA. If Muzzin and LaDue skate together in 2018-19, they’ll be the polar opposite of Martinez-Phaneuf in style, and might be terrific in results too.

Despite frequent calls from the fanbase to trade one (only for a king’s ransom) or the other (a call as old as time itself), the Kings clearly value both Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez. We’ll see a ton of both of them next season, but more than ever, we’ll love them for their differences and not their similarities.