Muzzin at the crossroads

February 23, 2023

The long and winding — not to mention improbable — hockey career of former Soo Greyhounds first rounder Jake Muzzin is at a standstill. 

For one, Muzzin is officially sidelined for the rest of the 2022-2023 National Hockey League season, the Toronto Maple Leafs have confirmed. And whether the veteran defenceman can eventually resume his NHL career remains to be seen.

The Maple Leafs recently announced that the injured Toronto blue-liner won’t suit up again this 2022-2023 season after initially suffering a neck injury back in the middle of October from a collision with Arizona Coyotes forward Clayton Keller. The Maple Leafs subsequently announced back in November that Muzzin would re-evaluated in February.

Then came this news from the Maple Leafs in a recent media release. 

“After follow-up consultation this month with various specialists, our medical staff have determined that (Muzzin) has been ruled out for the rest of the 2022-2023 regular season and playoffs as he recovers from a cervical spine injury,” the Leafs said in a statement. “The club will provide a further update as to his status at training camp in September.”

The 6-foot-4, 227-pound native of Woodstock, Ont., had one assist in four games with the Maple Leafs this season, most of which was spent on the long-term injured reserve list. Muzzin, whose significant injury history includes concussions, was limited to 47 games in 2021-2022.

The bruising 34-year-old won the Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings in 2014 and was acquired by Toronto via trade in January 2019.

Often the team’s locker-room conscience as a talented core looked to finally get over its playoff hump, Muzzin subsequently signed a four-year, US $22.5-million contract with the Maple Leafs in February of 2020 that carries a salary cap hit of $5.625 million through the end of next season.

Maple Leafs general manager — and Sault Ste. Marie native — Kyle Dubas now has a level of clarity ahead of the March 3 trade deadline should he look to add to a blue line that endured a string of absences earlier in the schedule — or upgrade elsewhere after already acquiring forwards Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari from the St. Louis Blues.

In the meantime, Dubas noted that defenceman T.J. Brodie has stepped up to take on a significant chunk of the “hard minutes” that Muzzin occupied against opponents’ best players.

To be sure, Muzzin took the long road to the NHL.

He didn’t sign with the Pittsburgh Penguins after they selected him in the fifth round of the 2007 NHL draft following his first season with the Ontario Hockey League’s Soo Greyhounds. Muzzin re-entered the draft in 2009, but was passed over before returning to the Greyhounds and the OHL as an overage player and eventually signing with Los Angeles in January 2010.

Muzzin has registered 69 goals, 225 assists, 294 points and 399 penalty minutes in 683 regular season NHL games with the Kings and Maple Leafs. He has added 11 goals, 17 assists, 28 points in 72 playoff appearances.

Whether injuries have finally caught up to Muzzin that will signify the end of his playing career or not, the former Greyhound standout has more than made his mark as a significant and steady NHL defender who, playoffs included, has skated in well over 700 games. And he also has something that the vast majority of NHL players never get the opportunity to experience — a Stanley Cup championship and the ring that goes with it.

As for his much better than average OHL career with the Greyhounds, Muzzin overcame a serious back injury to play in 258 games, including playoffs, from 2006 to 2010. Known for his grit and leadership as well as his skills in playing the defence position, Muzzin totalled 29 goals, 98 assists, 127 points. During his four seasons with the Greyhounds, Muzzin got to play for two good head coaches who brought out the best in him — Craig Hartsburg and Denny Lambert.

— with files from Postmedia and the Canadian Press.

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