LOS ANGELES — Before returning to Staples Center for the first time since getting traded out of town, Jake Muzzin looked at the lineup of the team formerly known as the mighty Los Angeles Kings.
What he found surprised him.
“I didn’t really know too many people and I got a little bit sad, actually, because what we had there was special,” said Muzzin.
It’s no coincidence that the Toronto Maple Leafs were among those to raid the Kings roster in search of that winning formula. In Muzzin and Kyle Clifford, they brought in two of the most popular, highest-character players from the teams that lifted the Stanley Cup here in 2012 and 2014.
That much is evident in the reverential tones they’re still spoken about in Los Angeles — to say nothing of the huge ovation that accompanied a video tribute during Thursday’s 1-0 shootout loss by Toronto.
“He’s the ultimate teammate,” Anze Kopitar said of Clifford.
“You guys won’t realize how much he means to a team unless you’re in the room,” Drew Doughty said of Muzzin.
They are now being counted on to help guide a young Leafs core trying to make the leap from good to great. That process is ongoing and has seen plenty of inconsistent play this season — although, to their credit, they’ve continually responded to poor performances like they did in this tight battle with the Kings.
Clifford had an interesting night in his first visit back since the Feb. 5 trade that brought him to Toronto, getting levelled by Doughty, his good buddy, in the first period. He also put a good hit on Matt Roy himself and had a dangerous scoring chance late in a tight game that didn’t feature too many in regulation.
Muzzin had to watch from the press box after breaking a knuckle on his right hand last week and saw his teammates play a tighter, more structured game than they’re used to. That would be a welcome sight for a guy who has lamented Toronto’s desire to play an “easy game” on multiple occasions since his January 2018 arrival.
What he and Clifford are trying to get across at this crucial stage of the season is the need to play harder.
“Yeah, we’re trying,” said Muzzin. “We want to get to that level, we believe in the group in there. It’s just getting there. It’s tough.”
Clifford wants the Leafs to build an internal identity that they can lean on when the games get tight. A style of play from which confidence can be drawn.
While Kings coach Todd McLellan thinks the idea of adding “winners” can sometimes be overrated, he understands why the Leafs were drawn to Clifford. The veteran winger should have a stabilizing effect when moments of adversity arrive.
“That Kyle has won in the past is an added bonus,” said McLellan. “He’s been there, he’s been able to play through the ups and downs of long series. I’m sure he’ll be able to lend some credence to that locker-room.”
He’s already having a positive influence now — with Leafs president Brendan Shanahan crediting him for the recent uptick in Kasperi Kapanen’s game on Thursday morning.
Clifford also isn’t sweating the fact his team is still battling just to get into the playoffs, holding a five-point edge over the Florida Panthers for the final spot in the Atlantic Division.
“I think we all know from the time in L.A., it doesn’t really matter about where you land in the playoff seed, it’s just a matter of getting in,” said Clifford. “We’ve got a special group here.”