EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — As much as Kyle Clifford, and Jake Muzzin, can bring a winning pedigree to the Maple Leafs, the man coaching their former club sees their potential impact a little differently. Read MoreEx-Kings Clifford, Muzzin making an impact as Leafs continue to grow — Toronto Sun
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — As much as Kyle Clifford, and Jake Muzzin, can bring a winning pedigree to the Maple Leafs, the man coaching their former club sees their potential impact a little differently.
“I think that sometimes the winner tag is overrated,” Los Angeles Kings coach Todd McLellan said on Wednesday. “I think it’s the ability to fit in — the chemistry tag should be the one that is addressed more than the winner tag.”
The Leafs have been getting that symmetry with Muzzin, who signed a four-year extension with Toronto last week, for more than a year after acquiring Muzzin from the Kings in January 2019. The experience of having Clifford, and goalie Jack Campbell, as an influence on the group will hit one month on Thursday following the trade with the Kings on Feb. 5 that brought both to Toronto.
Clifford and Muzzin hoisted the Stanley Cup with the Kings, though as McLellan indicated, that’s only part of the package.
While Muzzin has taken on the status of a spectator after breaking a knuckle on his right hand last week against Tampa Bay — Muzzin said on Wednesday he would like to be back before the original prognosis of four weeks’ absence is up, but only if it “makes sense” — Clifford continues to take on a greater role, off the ice as much as on.
“He has really been terrific,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said following practice at the Kings’ facility near the Los Angeles International Airport. “His perspective that he has, the experiences he has, also the type of personality he has to be able to talk to anyone on the team.
“He is a competitor and he brings it every day. Those types of things rub off on the rest of your team.”
The Leafs could have used Muzzin’s guidance and presence on the ice on Tuesday night in San Jose, when there was general disorganization in the defensive zone during a 5-2 loss against the Sharks. While Muzzin and the rest of the injured Leafs might not have liked what they witnessed, the defenceman had some perspective a day later.
“It’s tough to be at the top of your game consistently night in and night out,” Muzzin said. “The teams that find a way to do that the most are at the top of the league and get themselves to win a Cup.
“It’s a battle throughout the season to continually bring your emotion and compete level. We’re working to get to that.
“We believe in the group in there. It’s just that getting there is tough.”
The Leafs, who take on the Kings on Thursday night at the Staples Center, won their previous three games and four in five before the Sharks attacked.
Veterans such as Muzzin, Clifford, Jason Spezza and captain John Tavares, whether they have won the Cup, are a positive influence, but with the emphasis in Toronto on a younger core of players, the learning curve will have bumps.
“We don’t want to be responding to anything that is happening,” Keefe said. “We want to be dictating it and we want to be confident when we come to the arena every day.”
So the work continues to try to be, as Muzzin said, as close to consistent every night as possible.
“We don’t want to say ‘Hey, we put together three pretty good games last week and that was just a one-off,’” Keefe said of the San Jose loss. “There have been other times where we have looked like that.
“One of the bigger issues is that when we have looked bad, we have been really bad. We’re not going to have great nights every night and we’re not going to win every night. But we’re capable of putting together a level of competitiveness and work ethic and structure every day to make sure it doesn’t go south to that degree.”
The Leafs will be better once Muzzin returns. Clifford is making in-roads.
We come back to something else McLellan said, which applies to the NHL as a whole.
“Sometimes coaches, media, fans, we live in this fantasy world that we’re just going to run over teams and take advantage no matter how we are built,” McLellan said. “The parity in the league is immense and they’re human beings. They’re going to have off-nights.”