Jake Muzzin: The Leafs Unsung Norris Candidate

In January 2019, the Maple Leafs acquired Jake Muzzin from the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for Carl Grundstrum, Sean Durzi, and a 2019 1st round pick. At the time, I thought it was a hefty price for a 29, and soon to be 30-year old defenceman. What I didn’t realize is that the Leafs were getting a guy that is a legitimate 1st pair stud who should be in the Norris trophy conversation even at 31 years old.

Note: All possession stats and /60 stats set out below are at 5v5.

Base Stats, /60 Stats, and Context Stats

When you think of Jake Muzzin, you don’t think of an offensive defenceman. Despite the fact that the strength of his game is his ability to defend, Jake Muzzin produces points at an elite rate at 5v5. Over the past two seasons, his 1.24 points/60 places him in the 93rd percentile amongst NHL defenceman at 5v5. He also ranks in the 91st percentile in that same time frame in terms of 5v5 goals/60. His goal and assist totals appear to be low at first glance but when you factor in that Muzzin has been given less than 60 total power-play minutes in his time with Leafs, those numbers become far more impressive.

So far in 2021, Jake Muzzin ranks 45th in goals/60 and 20th in points/60 among defencemen with more than 30 minutes played at 5v5. Muzzin ranks first on the Leafs in both categories. Again, Muzzin may not have a reputation for his offensive contributions but at 5v5 he more than holds up when compared with some of the best offensive defencemen in the league. In addition, he does this while receiving mostly defensive zone starts and facing extremely tough competition as he ranks in the 76th percentile in TOI v. Elite over the past two seasons.

Possession Stats: Raw and Rel

Put Simply, the Leafs are better when Jake Muzzin is on the ice. The team gets more shot attempts, scores more goals, and gets the puck to the offensive zone more often than not when Muzzin gets out there. Pointing back to his SKATR Chart, Muzzin ranks in the 81st and 82nd percentiles in terms of Relative Expected Goals for and Relative Corsi For respectively. Over the past two years, Muzzin ranks 1st among Leafs defencemen with over 500 minutes played in Relative Expected Goals For. Muzzin continues to put up extremely strong numbers across the board in 2021 and has seen increased minutes under Sheldon Keefe.

Muzzin, dating back to his days in LA, has always had a positive effect on his partners. He has put up good numbers beside guys like Drew Doughty, Tyson Barrie, Alex Martinez, and now Justin Holl. When you look at his WOWY numbers, pairing a d-man with Muzzin almost always leads to better possession stats for his partner and he has particularly excelled when paired with both Drew Doughty and Justin Holl as those pairings achieved better results together than when either player was separated from the other. It is clear that Jake Muzzin can carry his own pairing but in Muzzin-Holl we may have just stumbled upon a legit #1 shutdown pairing which is a major bonus considering Mike Babcock scratched Justin Holl 71 times just 2 seasons ago.

Transition Stats

Muzzin is not the best skater in the NHL but he poses elite hockey sense and puts himself in positions that allow him to excel in transition. He is an effective passer who can move the puck up ice and he is very good at defending our blue line. Morgan Rielly is an elite skater and one of the best offensive defencemen in the league. Muzzin doesn’t excel like Rielly does in terms of Zone entries but over the past 4 seasons, he is a fairly close comparable to Rielly with respect to other transition metrics such as zone exits, shot assists, and zone entry defence. Muzzin isn’t as flashy be he achieves similar results to a player like Rielly by doing the little things right and that’s part of the reason why he doesn’t get the credit he deserves as these little things don’t jump off the screen when you watch Muzzin play.

Conclusion

Jake Muzzin has quietly turned into one of the best defencemen in the NHL and this seems to go unoticed by both fans and the media despite the fact that he plays in the league’s biggest market. Justin Holl has, deservedly, gotten some Norris attention early on this year but I’d argue that it’s his partner that deserves to be getting some love around the league in that conversation. Muzzin won’t put up the point totals that are needed to win the Norris as he doesn’t get power-play time but his5v5 play and his work on the penalty kill puts him firmly in an elite category amongst NHL defencemen.

All stats from hockey-ref(https://www.hockey-reference.com/), Natural Stat Trick(http://www.naturalstattrick.com/) and CJ Turtoro’s Transition model(https://public.tableau.com/profile/christopher.turtoro#!/)