The Emergence of Jake Muzzin

Prior to the season, ESPN ranked Jake Muzzin as the 50th best defenseman in the league and we all shared a laugh. Whoops.

Do you all remember this? Do you remember how you laughed? I remember how *I* laughed, and I like the guy.

I think it's time to admit that we were a bit harsh on poor Jake Muzzin. Despite his unfortunate eyebrows and some very obvious mental lapses, he has turned into a pretty fine player.

On a very basic level, Muzzin's numbers aren't super enticing. His 26 points make him the (oh-so-very-Jake-Muzziny) 69th best point producing defenseman in the NHL. However, when you break it down a bit further and look at 5v5 points, things start to look up for him. Jake Muzzin produced the 60th most points in the league among defenders at 5v5, and when you break it down to points per 60 mintues, Muzzin climbs all the way up to 51st. Among Kings defenders, he ranks only behind Slava Voynov in this regard. That's right, he produced more points at even strength than Drew Doughty! Doughty managed just 14 5v5 points compared to Muzzin's 16.

Where Muzzin really lagged behind was on the man advantage. He picked up just 5 points while the Kings were up a man this season, but I won't punish him too harshly for LA's abysmal power play. It's hard to imagine that a player with his ability to produce at even strength just loses those skills on the when the ice opens up a bit more, but what we have to go on is not particularly encouraging.

What should excite everyone about Jake Muzzin are his gaudy possession numbers. They're unbelievable. At a basic glance, he has the second best Corsi in the league, trailing behind just The God Patrice Bergeron. Now, Muzzin receives nowhere near the harsh minutes that Bergeron does, obviously, and he's not the second best hockey player in the league or anything. As always, Corsi is only at its most valuable if its given proper context.

At a very simple level, we have Corsi Rel, which just measures Corsi in context with the rest of a player's team. Jake Muzzin still stacks up pretty well. Instead of being the best possession defenseman in the league, he's merely the 6th best. Surrounding him on either side are excellent players: Marc-Eduoard Vlasic, Kimmo Timonen, Mark Giordano, PK Subban, Victor Hedman. By this measure, he's in excellent company.

Even still, we need more context. How does he stack up compared to players playing minutes similar to his own? To figure out some comparable players, we'll look at a few different things. We want to get an idea of who he's played against, who he's played with, and how Darryl Sutter has deployed him.

First we'll look at Muzzin's competition. He faces the second toughest competition among defenders on the Kings. This can be looked at a few ways. On one hand, it could just be shrugged off as a result of playing with Drew Doughty. After all, someone has to play there. On the other hand, no one else has slotted in there, and it's not for lack of effort. The Kings have tied a number of players to Doughty's hip over the past two seasons, and no one has stuck around there as consistently as Muzzin. He's received increased trust from Darryl Sutter as the past two seasons (and more importantly, as these playoffs) have moved along. Muzzin isn't there because there's nowhere else to put him; Muzzin is in that spot because he's earned the right to play there.

There can be no question about the next criteria. Jake Muzzin plays a ton of minutes with the team's best players. As I said before, it doesn't feel like he's being sheltered there, but is actively contributing to the conversation when he's on the ice. A good way to quantify this is through zone entry statistics. During the regular season, Jake Muzzin was third among Kings' defenders at controlling the puck on zone entries (35%). How does that compare to d-men around the league? Here's what Jen from Second City Hockey and Garik of Hockey-Graphs had to say. Remember next that the Kings employed a system that suppressed controlled zone entries for much of the season. Given both that thought and the general idea that 40% seems to be the mark that the second level of puck-moving defenseman seem to hit, Jake Muzzin's numbers put him squarely in that tier of players. Also note Duncan Keith there. Jen says that he controlled the puck on entry 38% of his entries, which isn't too far away from Jake Muzzin's 35%. File that away for later.

Based on the quality of both his teammates and competition, there are only a small handful of players that fit the Jake Muzzin profile.

Jake Muzzin's comparables

Player Pos. Team(s) CF% CF% rel GF% GF% rel ZS% ZS% rel QoC TOI% QoT TOI%
1 Jake Muzzin D Kings 61.10% 6.30% 57.70% 1.20% 58.10% 6.00% 28.80% 28.80%
2 Duncan Keith D Blackhawks 56.60% 2.00% 56.70% 0.40% 57.30% 2.70% 28.90% 28.50%
3 Alexander Edler D Canucks 52.40% -0.40% 30.60% -23.30% 51.00% 1.10% 28.90% 28.90%
4 Andrew Ference D Oilers 42.90% -3.10% 41.10% -0.20% 45.90% 0.70% 28.90% 28.30%
5 Marc Methot D Senators 52.00% 0.40% 48.70% -0.50% 51.60% 1.30% 28.70% 28.40%
6 Mark Fayne D Devils 55.30% 1.50% 45.10% -4.20% 47.30% -7.80% 28.90% 28.80%

Jake Muzzin outperforms them all by possession metrics, but he also receives easier zone starts than all of them by a landslide. Except Duncan Keith. Keith and Muzzin perform similarly in similar minutes. The only clear separation between the two is in point production, which is obviously important. However, the difference between them may not be as large as you think. Where they differentiate to significant lengths at 5v5 play is in secondary assists, which have been shown in the past to not be a particularly sustainable skill. Does this line up for Keith this year? It sure does. Of his 32 assists at even strength play this year, 20 were of the secondary variety. That accounts for 62.5% of his assists, which ties a career high that he set 3 seasons prior.

I'm not saying this to discredit Keith, but to praise Muzzin. Keith will undoubtedly rack up more points in a higher octane, more skilled offense, and he's very likely a more talented player at both ends of the rink. However, the difference between Muzzin and Keith is not enormous in any aspect. Yet for some reason, Keith receives accolades and praise and award nominations while Muzzin doesn't even enter hockey's field of vision.

Perhaps these playoffs and even this series can be the start of that changing, because Muzzin is a gifted (albeit somewhat dopey) hockey player and I'm not sure that even most Kings fans appreciate what LA has stumbled into with him. He is going to make mistakes, both because that is something that every hockey player does and because it's part of the growing up process of young defensemen. However, he has a vast army of talent and a wealth of physical tools to go with it. The only reason anyone should be laughing at Jake Muzzin being the 50th ranked defenseman in the league is if they're laughing at him not being ranked even higher.