For all his years playing minor hockey in Southern Ontario, Jake Muzzin's long-and-winding path to the NHL would occasionally intersect with Drew Doughty's. Doughty was the rocket ship to the top, the can't-miss kid from London, who starred in the world junior tournament, went second over all to the Los Angeles Kings in the 2008 NHL entry draft and was playing for Canada's men's Olympic hockey team as a 20-year-old.
The Woodstock-born Muzzin took the more traditional developmental path for would-be NHL defencemen, which featured a lot of stutter steps along the way. Slowed by back surgery to repair two herniated discs when he was just 16, he was drafted 141st over all by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2007, but not signed. Re-entering the draft in 2009, he was overlooked by every NHL team and obliged to play an overage (and ultimately breakout) season for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Named the OHL's top defenceman in his final junior year, the Kings signed him to a modest free-agent contract and now look what they have.
Muzzin and Doughty currently form the top defensive pair on what was the best defensive team in the NHL this past season. Sometimes, it's true what they say. If the journey to the top is at all challenging, it makes arriving at the final destination all the more satisfying.
The fact that Muzzin and Doughty are together now, playing together in the Western Conference final against the Chicago Blackhawks, ties together some boyhood loose ends.
"I was in Brantford, he was in London and I tried to go to London, but they have such a big group of kids, you had to have a London address to play there," said Muzzin, in an interview prior to Saturday's third game of the series, currently tied at a game apiece. "I couldn't do it, so I ended up going to Brantford and we played against each other. Then in junior, he was obviously one of the top-end guys and I was kind of in the bottom for most of my career. We finally meet up again – and here we are."
Muzzin and Doughty are coach Darryl Sutter's shutdown pair, and currently playing heavy minutes against the Blackhawks' starring cast of forwards.
Muzzin contributed the power-play winner in Game 2, his fourth playoff goal, tied for tops in the NHL post-season, after scoring just five goals in 76 regular-season games. Scoring – and the offensive part of the game – was always one of Muzzin's strong suits, but earning Sutter's trust involved improving the defensive side of his game. Robyn Regehr's injury absence cast Muzzin in a penalty-killing role and Sutter described that as "probably the only difference we see in him.
"Offence is just something that gets talked about the day after the game," said Sutter. "If you win the game, then they made a great contribution."
After missing most of last year because of injury, veteran defenceman Matt Greene had a good view of Muzzin's development. Like Sutter, he stressed how Muzzin's play on the defensive side of the puck has greatly improved.
"The toughest thing to do as a young defenceman coming into the league, especially when you want to put up numbers like he does, is play defence," said Greene. "I think he's really rounded out his game, become a really solid defenceman, playing over 20 minutes, playing alongside Doughty, against the other team's top lines. He's really come into his own becoming a two-way defenceman."
Skating was never Muzzin's strong suit, but he has a high hockey IQ plus a bubbling, effervescent personality, not unlike Doughty's. In 2012, when the Kings won the Stanley Cup, Muzzin was around for the victory celebration as a spectator. He'd spent most of that season playing for their minor-league affiliate in Manchester. When the AHL season ended, 11 players were recalled. Eight were eventually sent home, only three – Muzzin, goaltender Martin Jones and forward Marc-André Cliche – were asked to stick around until the end as injury insurance policies.
When it became clear the Kings were going to win Game 6 against the New Jersey Devils, the three Black Aces were told to put on their sweaters and join the post-game, on-ice celebration. So there is a picture of Muzzin holding the Stanley Cup over his head, although his name wasn't actually engraved on the Cup. That's something that will change this year, if the Kings happen to win it all.
"This is what you want to do," said Muzzin, in a quiet moment, surveying the busy Kings' dressing room. "You make the NHL and you're happy to be here but now you want to roll and you want to succeed. Right now, I'm excited. I want to play the minutes I'm playing. I want to get better. Playing with Drew and having fun out there and shutting guys down and having success – that's what it's all about."