Jake Muzzin, right, celebrates with Jarret Stoll after scoring a third-period… (Christian Petersen / Getty…)
The NHL's rookie of the year race generally follows a familiar pattern: Top candidates are usually high draft choices (such as Edmonton's Nail Yakupov, chosen first overall in the 2012 draft); college players (such as Justin Schultz, the former Ducks' pick, who signed as a free agent with Edmonton), or a hotshot European (young Russian star Vladimir Tarasenko, an early-season sensation for the St. Louis Blues.)
Rarely does a player such as Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin get mentioned in the conversation. Muzzin came up the hard way — he was a late-round draft choice by the Pittsburgh Penguins (141st overall in 2007) who didn't earn an NHL contract from them.
Signed by the Kings as an unrestricted free agent after he completed his junior career, in which he had all kinds of back problems and needed surgery to for herniated disks, the 24-year-old Muzzin spent most of the last two seasons playing for the Kings' minor league affiliate in Manchester, N.H.
His opportunity to crack the Kings roster came after two fixtures on the blue line, Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell, were injured. Muzzin got a chance to play and with the Kings finally starting to click, he has become an integral part of the team.
"Muzz has made good decisions with the puck with regards when to shoot it and waiting for lanes to open up and has a good shot," said Ron Hextall, the Kings' assistant general manager who watched Muzzin extensively at Manchester. "His confidence has grown since his call up and he has been very focused throughout. He needs to maintain his focus and continue to grow as a player."
Of late, Kings Coach Darryl Sutter has used Muzzin on his first power-play unit, pairing him with defenseman Slava Voynov, a teammate in Manchester during the NHL lockout. Their minor league partnership, Muzzin said, is one of the reasons they're having success at the NHL level. The great irony is that Muzzin had only two goals in half a season in the minors, but already has five this season in the NHL. Among rookie defensemen, that is tied for tops in the league.
"Familiarity always helps with regards to getting right up and running with a player, but Slava is a very predictable player, which makes him easy to read and react off of as a partner," Hextall said.
It hasn't been all smooth for Muzzin. In early February, he had an especially tough outing against the Ducks at Anaheim and Sutter later sat him down for two games on that trip and asked him to play with more consistency.
Muzzin was scheduled to play his 24th game of the season Saturday night, when the San Jose Sharks played the Kings in the rematch of a home-and-home series at Staples Center, on a night when Kings forward Tyler Toffoli was scheduled to make his NHL debut
"I don't know if it's just one thing," said Muzzin recently, when asked about his increasing comfort level at the NHL level. "It's a bunch of stuff that builds and builds. When you come in, you try to keep it simple. You make the right plays and you gain confidence by playing strong defensively and playing the body. It's been a kind of progress, not just one thing, so I've just got to continue working."
On Feb. 24, Muzzin was averaging just over 14 minutes per game of ice time. Now, he's up to 17 per night. Now paired with Drew Doughty, a former Norris Trophy finalist as the NHL's best defenseman, Muzzin cheerfully understates: "Yeah, he's pretty good. Sometimes, I make a mistake and he's there to cover my butt, which is nice of him.''
Muzzin may not actually win the Calder Trophy, but he has a chance to make the all-rookie team, a benchmark for a player who has come a long way in a short time. Going into Saturday's games, only four defensemen had scored more goals than him this season and they were a who's who of NHL stars: P.K. Subban (Montreal), Brian Campbell (Florida), Zdeno Chara (Boston) and Erik Karlsson (Ottawa).
"The learning curve, as we all know, never goes straight up," Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi said. "But to see him fitting in and doing some of the things he's doing is certainly a good sign."