In the short-term, there’s no denying how important Jake Muzzin is to the Leafs.
When he was out of action for a month with a broken foot, the blueline appeared completely lost at times. The team suffered multiple ugly, lopsided defeats due largely to an inability to play in their own end. In his return from the Injured Reserve on Monday, Muzzin logged just under 23 minutes and was a rock defensively for the Leafs, helping the team to a commanding 5-2 victory over the Predators in Nashville.
But what about in the long-term? Having seen how the team performs without their defensive stalwart in the lineup, it’s hard to imagine a Leafs team without Jake Muzzin at this point.
Before Monday’s game, Muzzin spoke to the media and mentioned how he would love to stick around in Toronto…
“The organization, the way they look after us, the guys here, the buzz in the city about hockey is huge,” Muzzin said after Monday’s skate. “Being close to home is always a nice touch, especially with a little one around now. There’s lots of good things here and I’d love to stay.”
As we know, Toronto’s blueline is poised for some turnover next year. Kyle Dubas has already locked up Justin Holl and Martin Marincin to extensions, meaning there are four defenders — Morgan Rielly, Rasmus Sandin, Holl, and Marincin — under control for 2020-21. Travis Dermott will be a restricted free agent while Muzzin, Tyson Barrie, and Cody Ceci will all become unrestricted free agents.
It’s safe to assume Dermott will be back next year while Ceci and Barrie will very likely walk in free agency. That would leave the Leafs with a decent amount of cap room to address some issues on the roster. Towards the top of that list should be finding a new deal for Jake Muzzin.
While the organization already has internal replacements for Ceci (Holl has stepped in and is already better) and Barrie (Timothy Liljegren is poised to take over on the right side in an offensive role), there’s nobody around to do what Muzzin does. There’s no prospect in the organization to play the veteran, gritty, defensive style that Muzzin plays.
If the Leafs let him go, they’ll need to find an external replacement, either through trade or free agency. Even then, there’s no guarantee that anybody can immediately step in and play the role as well as Muzzin does. Barrie seemed like he would be a perfect fit on this team and that hasn’t been the case. Muzzin is a rare talent in that he thrives defensively while not getting caved in like your standard heavy-hitting, shot-blocking shutdown guy.
Even though Muzzin wants to stick around, I wouldn’t expect some massive hometown discount. Muzzin will warrant a raise on his $4 million annual cap hit and Dubas will have to find a way to make it work around Toronto’s tight salary cap situation.
The play here that makes the most sense would be to offer more term in order to bring down the annual cost of the deal. Muzzin is 31 years old and a long-term deal could very well age poorly, but the Leafs are worried about right now. They need to keep Muzzin around and they also need to maximize financial flexibility to fill other areas of need. Giving Muzzin a two-year deal with a huge cap hit in order to avoid him falling off a cliff in his mid-30s will make it much more difficult to add elsewhere on the roster.
Given the fact guys like Anton Stralman and Niklas Hjalmarsson have commanded short-term deals worth $5,500,000 and $5,000,000 annually, a two- or three-year deal for Muzzin will surely end up with a cap hit well north of $6,000,000. The best way to keep Muzzin around and maintain financial flexibility would be to bite the bullet on a longer-term deal.
The Leafs are in win-now mode and Jake Muzzin makes the team better. He isn’t an easy player to replace as there isn’t anybody with his rare skillset internally within the organization and external additions are more unpredictable than the already-established player. A long-term deal will likely look bad by the end of the contract, but it’s the first few years that really matter here.