If this is it for Jake Muzzin, what's next for the Maple Leafs?
If this is it for Jake Muzzin, Chris Johnston looks at the salary cap and roster implications surrounding what's next for the Maple Leafs. Photo by Chris Young/CP.

TORONTO – This may be it for Jake Muzzin.

There is significant doubt that the heart-and-soul Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman will be able to get healthy enough to safely resume his NHL career.

Muzzin will certainly push back against that line of thinking. He’s not focused on embracing retirement. And he’s got a follow-up appointment scheduled with a California-based specialist in February to gauge how his recovery from a cervical spine injury is going.

As if that isn’t serious enough in its own right, there is concern about how devastating any subsequent hit might be for a 33-year-old father of two who has plenty to think about beyond his playing days.

"We have to make sure that we’re doing right by him," Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas told reporters Monday. "As important as he is to us as a player, his health is paramount."

Muzzin has endured a lot in recent years, getting stretchered off the ice during the playoff series with Columbus in August 2020 after briefly losing sensation in his arms and legs.

That was followed by two concussions in quick succession last season and a shoulder injury that limited him to a career-low 47 games.

He was kept off the ice for a portion of training camp this fall due to back discomfort and only played four games before suffering the neck injury when he took an unsuspecting hit from Arizona’s Clayton Keller.

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Add it all together and you can see why some close to the player believe it’s best he step away.

It says a lot about Muzzin’s intrinsic value to the organization that head coach Sheldon Keefe has continued to involve him in team meetings whenever possible. When Muzzin spoke in media interviews he often sounded like the conscience of the dressing room, unafraid to sugarcoat stretches of poor play and never one to shy away or diminish the gravity of a particular situation.

Take the opening day of training camp in September.

There was obviously a lot of focus on the Leafs inability to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs and Muzzin summed up the stakes hanging over 2022-23 like this: “Yeah, it is time. We know we have a good team, we have a good opportunity and for me personally, it’s like, ‘You don’t get that all the time.’ So you want to take advantage of it.'”

He may not personally get that opportunity. 

In the short term, the Leafs will simply soldier on with one less trusted veteran at their disposal.

That will likely equate to more role and opportunities for Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin, who are transitioning from being viewed as young players to impactful contributors.

How they fare in increased minutes and what information Muzzin’s follow-up appointment yields could set the stage for an interesting period leading into the March 3 trade deadline for Dubas and his staff.

If it’s officially determined that Muzzin won’t be able to return before the end of the regular season, the Leafs will keep his $5.625-million cap charge on long-term injured reserve and have the chance to allocate that space to roster improvements.

That could theoretically be spent acquiring a defenceman to replace Muzzin – although the trade market rarely includes those who can be trusted to handle tough minutes and move the puck as capably as he did.

Keep in mind that Dubas generally avoids shopping for rentals, too, especially in cases where he’s sacrificing important draft capital. Perhaps that’ll change with so much riding on the outcome of this season, but it’s an important dynamic to consider.

It’s also a reminder of why the trade to acquire Muzzin in January 2019 should be considered among the best Dubas has orchestrated during his years running the Leafs. It filled an immediate organizational need with a player under team control beyond that current season and only cost him futures: prospects Carl Grundstrom and Sean Durzi, plus a 2019 first-round pick Los Angeles used to select Tobias Bjornfot.

While those players are now in a position to contribute for the Kings years later, the Leafs enjoyed four years of steady play from Muzzin.

He brought an element they don't have in endless supply. In addition to being a warrior with 700-plus games and a Stanley Cup on his resume, Muzzin was known for giving younger teammates a place to stay at his home and served as one of the Leafs unofficial social convenors.

On the ice, he gave everything he had. If this is indeed it, he'll leave a big hole for the Leafs to try and fill.

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