The big news today on the Hurricanes hockey front is the trade of Ron Hainsey to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a second round draft pick and AHL veteran Danny Kristo with the Hurricanes retaining the maximum 50 percent of Hainsey’s salary for the remainder of the season. I actually had Hainsey going to Pittsburgh in part 1 of my Hurricanes trade deadline preview from this morning.
I evaluated the Ron Hainsey trade in some detail after it broke and analyzed its early impact on starting to build the Hurricanes’ blue line to start the 2017-18 season. In short, I am incredibly happy for Ron Hainsey who will deservedly make his first NHL playoff appearance. I think Francis did incredibly well netting a second round pick (I said I would have been happy with a third-rounder), but it irks me that we often have to keep salary in these deals. That reality of the NHL salary cap world will add about $396,000 to the Hurricanes’ losses this season.
In my preview, I suggested that Murphy had a strong chase of being traded before the start of the 2017-18 season likely in a change of scenery trade that sees him exchanged for a similarly high potential prospect who just has not worked out so far. I pegged the chance of Murphy being traded by the trade deadline at 50 percent. But I think the chance of him being gone before the start of the 2017-18 training camp is much higher. The significant difference in the probabilities based on time frame is explained below.
Ryan Murphy was drafted in the middle of the first round based on his incredible skating ability and potential to generate offense. His size was noted as something to overcome and the defensive part of his game was what he needed to develop to leverage his natural offensive ability to become an NHL regular.
Ryan Murphy version 1.0
The first glimpses of Ryan Murphy in a Hurricanes’ uniform showed the upside and the downside. He oftentimes skated his way into a dead end, but nonetheless his ability to rush the puck up the ice straight through everything was breath taking. He did not yet know how to use his speed to set up passing lanes to instead move the puck forward and follow it, and he did not yet know how to convert it to scoring chances. But it was not hard to see the potential as he refined the skill. Defensively, he was also about as expected. The combination of being undersized and not really understanding how to use some combination of his stick, body position and well-timed aggressiveness to defend left work to do defending 1-on-1 in the defensive zone. He also was prone to misreading responsibilities defending the rush. In short, Murphy’s offensive upside was intact, but the as advertised his offensive game needed refinement, and his defensive game needed work.
Ryan Murphy version 2.0, 3.0, 4.0…?
After some time in Charlotte and then rotations between the AHL and the NHL, Ryan Murphy has now seen multiple insertions into the NHL lineup and also multiple returns either to the press box or to the AHL. In watching Murphy closely, I have noticed improvement in the defensive side of Ryan Murphy’s game mostly in terms of tightening up small things. He now understands how to get his butt against the wall when he has the inside path to a puck moving along the boards, so a bigger player cannot get a shoulder inside of him and just move him out of the way. Though not perfect, he has become better at understanding stick position and also using it aggressively to upset players trying to slowly use their size to work him over. (Side note is that understanding how to play passing lanes with his stick is a big one on Hanifin’s development checklist.) And though he still looks uncomfortable at times, Murphy is better at leaving smaller gaps defending off the rush. I think some might disagree, but I will strongly stand by an assertion that Murphy has made progress defensively.
But here is the thing with Murphy. The path to being a good third pairing defenseman using his natural skill set will not come from morphing into a great stay-home defenseman. It just will not happen. Murphy’s path to becoming an NHL regular comes from leveraging his skating to be a good if not great offensive defenseman who is probably adequate and not necessarily better defensively.
And that is actually where I think Murphy got lost along the way. Instead of trying to adapt his reckless straight up the rink puck rushes to pass sooner or better read options in the neutral zone, he seemed to instead retreat to giving it up completely. If I rewind to Murphy’s first stint in the NHL, my estimate from memory is that he would rush the puck through the neutral zone at least 3-4 times per game. The most common ending was that he skated right past his forwards such that he entered the offensive zone 1 wide. Without help/puck support, he then proceeded to get pushed outside of the face-off dot from where he either sent the puck around the boards or settled for a low-probability, bad angle shot. Either play more often than not resulted in a change of possession to the opposition. If I fast forward to the past 2 seasons, I cannot even remember the last time I saw Ryan Murphy try to generate offense off the rush 3-4 times in a game. Instead, he seems to have buttoned things down and tried to change his game to be safer.
The result with Murphy is that he is actually marginally better defensively but still probably below average on the defensive side of the puck. And along the way he has gone from potentially dynamic offensively to just ‘meh’ in that regard too. As such and per my trade deadline preview, I think we have reached the point where best for him and the Hurricanes is a ‘change of scenery’ trade that gets him a fresh start with another organization in return for a similar player.
An aside on Ryan Murphy and Noah Hanifin
This might sound strange, but when I think back to the fairly extended run of Hanifin/Murphy to the front part of the 2015-16, nothing bothers me more in retrospect than picturing that pairing trying so hard to just safely move the puck back and forth and carefully get it off their sticks and forward into the neutral zone without incident. At the time it felt good. Noah Hanifin was only 18 years old and just getting his feet under him, so anything that was not bad was interpreted as good by a fan base desperately needing hope. And Ryan Murphy needed to make fewer mistakes. That is what the young duo did. They focused intently on not making mistakes. But when I look back with 20/20 vision, I think it is completely backwards. The part of both Hanifin and Murphy’s games that has the potential to make them great is not buttoned down safe play. The potential for elite hockey for both players, comes from a high level of Joni Pitkanen-style freelancing to create scoring chances. I have hollered and will continue to holler for “more Pitkanen” for Hanifin. More likely than not those days came and went for Ryan Murphy in a Hurricanes uniform possibly after he serves as an expansion draft shield this summer before being traded.
I would expect some number of Canes fans will react aggressively by saying that I am nuts to even put Ryan Murphy in the same category as Noah Hanifin. While I would agree that Noah Hanifin’s starting potential/ceiling is much higher because of his size, even better all-around skating and just higher skill level, I think the 2 are more similar than most would feel comfortable admitting. Both started with high end potential offensively because of their skating/puck carrying ability but had a long way to go from day 1 defensively. To be clear, I do think Hanifin has a much higher ceiling, but I do think the common theme of both being players whose high ceiling comes from being dynamic on the offensive side of the puck is significant and worth watching.
So what to do with Ryan Murphy at this point?
There is a contingent that will vote to trade Ryan Murphy as soon as possible. While I do not at disagree with the aim to move on, especially if a comparable but different restart player could be acquired.
But I think Ryan Murphy might have 1 more role to fill over the next 4 months for the Hurricanes before departing in late June or July. The expansion draft requires each team to expose at least 1 defenseman who has either played 40 games at the NHL level in 2016-17 or 70 games total in 2015-16 and 2016-17 combined. Right now, the only players signed for 2017-18 who qualifies is Justin Faulk. The Hurricanes will obviously do something to avoid exposing Justin Faulk to the expansion draft. The departure of Ron Hainsey today leaves 3 options on the current roster. The Hurricanes could re-sign either Klas Dahlbeck or Matt Tennyson (Tennyson would need to play 8 more NHL games first) and expose 1 of them. Either is possible especially if Francis gets a great trade offer for Ryan Murphy. Another option is to expose Murphy who is already signed for next season. If he was not claimed which is reasonably probable, Francis could trade him afterward. But to qualify in terms of experience, Murphy would need to play 24 of the Hurricanes 26 remaining games.
Best bet is that Francis will at least consider trading Murphy sooner rather than later especially if another team makes a good offer. Francis knows he can default to using Tennyson or Dahlbeck instead if needed. But at the same time with the opening left in the lineup, I think Francis and Peters will start marching Murphy toward the 24 games for possible expansion draft purposes but also possibly to boost his value.
The possible upside and wild card in the 24 games if they happen
After a couple more failed attempts to stick in the NHL lineup and a ton of time as a healthy scratch, Ryan Murphy’s value has to be pretty close to rock bottom right now. Ice time can be a double-edged sword depending on if a player plays well or does not, but I think the upside potential is greater than the downside risk for Ryan Murphy at this point. If he plays a run of games and at least looks serviceable as an NHL defenseman and then rekindles a bit of his puck-rushing skill set for a couple great offensive plays, just maybe his value comes up a little bit off the floor.
The other wild card is that if Ryan Murphy gets an extended run of games in a ‘nothing left to lose’ type of desperate try out, it is not completely inconceivable he just puts it all together finally. If nothing else, that generates a sell ‘high (er)’ scenario for Ron Francis to capitalize on right after he serves as an expansion draft shield for Justin Faulk.