Ryan Murphy is player #2 in what I hope will be ‘7 D in 7 days. First up yesterday was John-Michael Liles whose write up can be found HERE.
When I categorize the youth in the system on defense, most players fit pretty neatly into 1 of 2 categories.
‘The old guard’ are the experienced AHLers (22+ years old) who are a bit older and with significant AHL experience but not yet able to crack the NHL. In this group, I included Keegan Lowe, Danny Biega, Rasmus Rissanen and even to some degree Michal Jordan though he is different in that he has risen to the top of this group and has a 1-way contract that makes him likely to spend the season at the NHL level.
‘The young guns’ are the promising batch of younger (18-21 years old) prospects who as a group look promising. This group is just starting to matriculate to the AHL level. The group includes Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Noah Hanifin, Trevor Carrick and Tyler Ganly who will play the 2015-16 season at the NHL or AHL level. It also includes Haydn Fleury, Roland McKeown, Josh Wesley and a couple other more recent draftees who will spend the 2015-16 season in Canadian juniors or the US college ranks. Of this group, only Trevor Carrick has any significant professional experience (1 season in the AHL for Carrick).
Then there is the curious case of Ryan Murphy. Age and experience-wise, he fits in the ‘old guard’ category but is different in that he has a high upside and the potential to be a higher-end NHL player. I described this as a make or break season in which he needed to seize a role in the lineup or at least firmly in Ron Francis’ projects for 1-3 years from now or else he runs the risk of being passed by the ‘young guns’ and becoming trade bait.
I am not sure if Ryan Murphy projects as an every night top 4 defenseman, but I think his skill set of a skating, puck-moving offensively-capable defenseman is exactly what you want in a bottom pairing in the NHL. If you are down a goal or 2 late in the third, the coach can ease off the minutes on the workhorses and turn someone like Murphy loose. The chance of netting the needed goal or 2 increases with Murphy’s skill set, and if it does not work out at least the workhorse defensemen get a small rest.
Where Murphy fits
If he can put it all together, I really like Ryan Murphy’s potential to be an elite #5 defenseman. Some people might chuckle at using “elite” and “#5 defenseman” next to each other, but in today’s NHL, I think it makes total sense. Gone are the days when fourth lines were stocked with 1-3 enforcers who could not skate and players who could not score a goal to save their lives. In those times, third defense pairings could be stocked with similarly cantankerous players and/or penalty killers whose game was blocking shots and clearing the front of the net not skating or moving the puck. But in today’s NHL, the players who cannot skate or score are quickly becoming extinct. And the need to create offense throughout the lineup is a key to success for good teams. In this NHL, a third pairing MUST at a minimum be able to move the puck out of its own end; otherwise it gets preyed upon by aggressive forechecks. If Murphy can settle in a #5 who is good enough defensively and above average if not elite at moving the puck, the team gains flexibility as to the type of player and skill level required to round out the third pairing and also a leader to make things work when injuries force inexperienced players into the lineup.
His 2015-16 season so far
Paired almost exclusively with Noah Hanifin so far this season, I was not thrilled with Murphy’s play early. He was not horrible, but he just looked tentative with the puck, as if he was trying too hard not to make mistakes. That is not his game. His game is that of a skating, attacking defenseman, and that is the game with which he either needs to succeed or fail. He is not going to be a difference-maker in the NHL trying to morph into a stay-home defenseman.
More recently, he has opened things up a bit. In Friday’s win it showed up on the score sheet with 2 assists. Through 12 games he has 0 goals and 4 assists which is a pace for about 27 points. That is a bit light for an offensive defenseman who is getting a healthy helping of power play time. Interestingly, he leads the team at plus 3. I know it is uncool to even mention +/- these days, but it does say that the Canes are winning when he is on the ice at even strength which is obviously a good thing.
My watch points for Murphy’s development and success
I like the direction that Murphy is headed in this regard right now, but I continue to watch for a couple keys to see if he is all the way there or at least on the way with a high probability to make it.
Without the puck (the ante to play)
- He must consistently make the right reads/decisions defending on the rush and in the defensive zone.
- He must be positionally sound in the defensive zone especially defending 1v1 against bigger forwards.
- He must be able to defend when his player has the puck.
When he arrived with the label of a skating puck-moving defenseman, he was generally deficient in his play without the puck. His early games were characterized by a weird mix of ‘wow’ shifts when he had the puck and skated like the wind (even if it was into a dead end) down the ice followed by shifts in which he looked to be too small and not always sure where to go and what to do defensively.
This part of his game is still a work in process. In the middle of playing well with the puck, he had a stretch where he regressed a bit in terms of defending on the rush. In the Kings game, on a 2-on-1 he made the choice to go to Lucic instead of playing the passing lane. When Lucic fended him off and fed the puck to the middle the goalie had no chance. In the next game, he had to defend a 2-on-1 in which Joel Ward was coming straight down the middle of the circles toward Murphy. Probably hearing the voice of Coach Steve Smith in his head after watching tape of the previous night’s game, he went too much to the pass instead of playing out toward Ward coming through the passing lane. With no impediment at all from Murphy, Ward snapped a shot off from close range to beat Ward.
But I do think he has made progress overall. He is stepping into offensive players and keeping tighter gaps when defending against the player with the puck. And he is doing a better job of at least keeping position to prevent clear paths to the net.
Again, the goal is not for Murphy to become an elite stay-home defenseman, but he does need to continue to round out his game to be at least average or adequate without the puck such that his offensive skills are a plus not just an offset for being a liability defensively.
With the puck (his path to being a difference-maker)
- He needs to pick his spots to make things happen carrying the puck.
- He needs to convert it into goals.
- He needs to be above average on the power play.
Especially over the past 4-5 games, I thinks he rates very well at carrying the puck. He has opened things up a bit. Maybe most encouraging is that he has significantly improved at entering the offensive zone under control with options to do something useful. In his first season, he had many a rush where he flew past everyone (his forwards included) and skated his way into the corner with no help and either took a bad angle shot or turned the puck over. His ability to use his speed to force defenders to him and open up passing lanes is still a work in progress, but he is doing better at timing his zone entries, knowing where/when help is coming and not skating into dead ends. The latter 2 items are still a work in progress. I actually think the scoring part at even strength could be on the way already. As much as anything it is getting forwards to storm the front of the net when he carries the puck in on the wing. He had a pretty assist to Nathan Gerbe early in the season carrying a keep in from the point in. And he has been pretty regularly throwing pucks to the net in recent games. On the power play, he has yet to be a difference-maker. To be fair to him, the power play in general has struggled mostly across 10 players, so this is not something specific to him. That said, I think the next step for him is to be able to slow things down just a little bit on the power play. Right now, he seems reasonably comfortable receiving pucks, handling them and making the next pass. With a bit more comfort and patience will hopefully come the ability to sometimes make the ‘not next play’ and be a bit more creative and also find shooting lanes to put a few more pucks on and into the net.
Where do I stand on him so far?
Right now, I think Ryan Murphy is 1 of the most interesting stories to track. It might take some time, but it seems reasonable to think that the Canes will be able to fill out a pretty good top 4 on defense with players in the system in a couple years. Justin Faulk will be an anchor, and Brett Pesce and Noah Hanifin seem to be on their way to joining him. While it would be great if Ryan Murphy played his way into the top 4, I think his unique skill set is such that he can be almost as big of a difference-maker in a slightly more limited role as a #5. I also think that Ron Francis needs to/wants to figure out if this will happen fairly soon. Ryan Murphy does not necessarily have to get there this season, but if he does not at least project as a ‘very soon’ NHL defenseman, Francis might be inclined to use him as an asset to improve at forward and at the same time clear another spot for 1 of the up and coming defensemen.
It is something that I evaluate on a game by game basis, but right now, I am leaning positive on Ryan Murphy establishing himself as a more permanent part of the Carolina Hurricanes blue line.