TSN Toronto reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on the Maple Leafs. The Leafs (optional) and Lightning skated at Amalie Arena on Tuesday.
The Leafs hope the voice of Jake Muzzin will become even louder in the dressing room now that the defenceman has inked a four-year extension.
"This signing is significant in terms of just giving him the ability to know that he's really in this with us," said coach Sheldon Keefe. “Not that he wasn’t before, but just to now have him secured as part of our core [will] allow him to dig in even a little bit deeper with our core and help us get to the level we have to get to."
Keefe often refers to Muzzin, a native of Woodstock, Ont., as the conscience of the group.
"I wanted to be here," said Muzzin, who was due to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. "That’s pretty much it. I like the team, I like the city, the organization. Me and my wife really enjoyed it, so we wanted to be here."
That's a good thing, because Toronto has never needed Muzzin more. The Leafs have struggled to put forward consistent efforts of late, going just 8-9-3 since Jan. 5. Toronto has just five regulation wins in the past 20 games.
"The core of the team needs to take a jump," Muzzin said. "We can't have it one night and not the next and that's everyone and that's bringing along the younger core as well. We have to give them no option but to come with us."
Keefe points out that Muzzin's background with the Kings, including a championship run in 2014, gives him credibility in the room. The coach has urged the 31-year-old to use his platform to create an honest dialogue when things are going poorly.
"He has an interesting perspective," Keefe observed. "He comes from a different place, a place that had success, a place that had to find its way, so that gives him a little more power in terms of his ability to speak with our group. He also has the type of that personality that is comfortable saying what's on his mind and also just has really good perspective on what’s happening."
There are not a lot of veteran players on the Leafs. Jason Spezza, 36, is the only player older than Muzzin.
"Dig down," Muzzin said when asked how the Leafs can escape their current funk. "Everyone's got to get comfortable getting pushed a little harder and being uncomfortable, so it's a crucial time for us. We're going to need everyone's best efforts the rest of the way."
Muzzin and Kyle Clifford are the only players on the roster to win the Stanley Cup.
Tyson Barrie is relieved to still be with the Leafs.
"It was touch and go for a couple of days but I'm glad I made it through it," the pending unrestricted free agent said with a smile.
The defenceman, who had risen to No. 5 on TSN's trade bait list, spoke with Kyle Dubas on deadline day.
"It was nice of him to reach out," Barrie said.
What was the message from the general manager?
"He's got belief in this team," Barrie said, "and we're still in a spot and we're trying to make the playoffs and he believes in myself and the team and he wants me here."
Dubas didn't trade away Barrie, but he also didn't boost the roster. And then, during a news conference yesterday, Dubas admitted he wasn't sure why his highly skilled core wasn't leading the team to more consistent efforts.
Overall, it seemed to be a lukewarm endorsement at best, but for the players there was only one takeaway.
"He believes in this group is what we need to take from it," said Muzzin. "He's brought in pieces earlier [backup goalie Jack Campbell and gritty forward Clifford] and he believes in the group in here and now we have to go out and perform."
The Leafs can make a big statement tonight in Tampa. The Lightning are the hottest team in hockey, going 23-4-1 since Dec. 23.
"We need a bounce back after that last game," Barrie said. "With the deadline going by and we're keeping the team together and management showing belief in this team, it's a huge game to show we're going to respond and have a big push here at the end of the year."
Toronto is looking to turn the page after Saturday's embarrassing loss when they fell meekly to a tired Hurricanes team even though Carolina was forced to play with an emergency backup goalie – 42-year-old David Ayres, who serves as Toronto's fill-in goalie at practice – for almost half the game.
The Leafs are trying not to get caught up in any of the bad press since that debacle.
"It's kind of the old saying, you're not as good as everyone tells you are and not as bad when everyone says the same thing," captain John Tavares noted. "I know our team was built to, obviously, want to go all the way and we still have an opportunity to earn that chance to try and do that."
Keefe, meanwhile, recalled a conversation he had shortly over taking on the Leafs head coach job back in November.
"A very accomplished coach I was speaking with said to me, 'The difference between your job and mine is we have a bad month and nobody notices and you have a bad week and the world is ending.' So, it’s on me to manage that, but also acknowledge that for a while now we haven’t been able to play at the level that we're capable of and it’s on me to help find those solutions."
Down the hall in the Lightning room it was a much different feel as three new players got situated in their new home. GM Julien BriseBois added forwards Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow and defenceman Zach Bogosian before the deadline.
"It shows that our ownership and management is determined to win and that’s the same thing we feel in this room," said captain Steven Stamkos. "To go out and add some guys like that at the deadline, as a player, that’s a dream come true, so you want to go out there and have their back."
All three newcomers are expected to make their home debut for the Lightning tonight.
"I bring some grit, some physicality," said Goodrow. "I take a lot of pride in my defensive game, try to eliminate whoever I’m playing against that night. I play a hard game."
After dropping the final two games of a road trip, the Lightning are looking to avoid their first three-game skid since late November.
On the new additions: “It shows that our ownership and management is determined to win. That’s the same way we feel in this room, so to go out and add some guys like that at the deadline, as a player, that’s a dream come true.”#TORvsTBL | Steven Stamkos: pic.twitter.com/dx7qtbOLej— Tampa Bay Lightning (@TBLightning) February 25, 2020
Projected Leafs lines for tonight's game:
Lines at Lightning skate: