Ryan Murphy was given a mulligan entering his second National Hockey League training camp.
The highly touted defenceman took to the ice Sunday in Raleigh, N.C., with other Hurricanes hopefuls, eight days after his overtime gaffe led to a goal by Russia’s Valeri Nichushkin and a lost bronze medal for Murphy and his Canadian teammates at the world junior hockey championship in Ufa, Russia.
Sitting thousands of kilometres away in North America on that Jan. 5 morning was Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford, who wasn’t about to lay blame solely on Murphy, whom Carolina drafted 12th overall in 2011.
On the play, Nichushkin skated hard down the wing and blew by Murphy just inside Canada’s blue-line before driving to the net and sliding the puck between the post and the skate of Canadian goaltender Malcolm Subban 96 seconds into the extra period for a 6-5 win.
“That can happen to any defenceman in our league,” Rutherford said over the phone. “You can break down that goal and that wasn’t the only thing that happened. There were three or four things that happened that wasn’t just Ryan.
“Clearly, when you’re a highly skilled offensive guy [like Murphy] the defensive part doesn’t usually come in the early stages of your pro career.”
Canadian head coach Steve Spott, while noting Murphy elevated his play in the bronze medal contest, was less forgiving when discussing Murphy’s decision not to take the body against Nichushkin.
“I’m not speaking out of turn,” said Spott, who has coached Murphy the past three-plus seasons in the Ontario Hockey League with the Kitchener Rangers. “That is an area of his game that he has to continue working at, that against bigger, stronger competition, he has to prove that he’s not a liability defensively five-on-five and four-on-four.”
Eliminating risk from his game, the coach added, will be Murphy’s biggest challenge at a one-week NHL training camp.
After the Hurricanes returned Murphy to junior four games into last season, the blue-liner realized he needed to work harder in one-on-one situations and has followed through with the Rangers.
Spott said Murphy has more respect for the OHL and his opponents, and has learned he can’t recover if he makes a mistake at a higher level of hockey.
“It’s a different game [in the NHL]. The guys are stronger and a heck of a lot faster, so strength definitely plays a big role when you’re playing against NHL players,” said the five-foot-11 Murphy, a native of Aurora, Ont.
'I’ll do anything it takes to have a spot on that team. I’m confident.'— Hurricanes defence prospect Ryan Murphy
A shy and nervous 18-year-old at his first NHL camp, Murphy arrived in North Carolina this week with a different mentality and game plan. He also weighs 180 pounds, or four pounds heavier than his previous tryout.
“I am a bit bigger and stronger than I was last year,” he said. “At the same time, if I’m in the corner with [six-foot-three, 230-pound forward] Milan Lucic [of the Boston Bruins], he can out-battle a lot of guys in the league. I still have to use my speed and agility to try and win that battle over my physical appearance.
“I’ll do anything it takes to have a spot on that team. I’m confident."
Murphy’s speed and offensive game rarely have been questioned in junior but have been challenged this season while adjusting to a different role of defending the opposition’s top forward line rather than the second and third units.
At this year’s world juniors, Rutherford wondered if Murphy was confused about whether Spott and the coaching staff wanted him to be an offensive force or take a more conservative approach. In December 2011, Canadian coach Don Hay cut Murphy at the world junior selection camp after the player failed to meet the demands to play a more defensive style.
To that end, Rutherford said he planned to give Murphy a direction of what kind of player the Hurricanes believe he is when he arrived at camp.
As for how a shortened NHL season might affect near-ready prospects, Murphy has mixed feelings. He believes he might be in better game shape than players who didn’t play in Europe or in the American Hockey League during the lockout. On the flip side, Murphy isn’t sure what team would want to use up a year of his entry-level contract (reportedly worth $832,500 US) on a 48-game schedule.
Rutherford admitted NHL teams won’t be afforded the opportunity to “experiment” with top prospects in a shortened season, but said if Murphy shows he can contribute to the Hurricanes he’ll be in the lineup.
However, it could prove a difficult path, given Carolina’s depth on the blue-line. Rutherford re-acquired Joe Corvo after dealing him to Boston in July 2011. He joins returnees Joni Pitkanen, Tim Gleason, Jay Harrison and Jamie McBain along with 20-year-old sophomore Justin Faulk, who has posted 24 points in 31 games this season in the AHL with the Charlotte Checkers.
Rutherford also raved about the progress of Bobby Sanguinetti, a New York Rangers first-round pick in 2006 whom the Hurricanes traded for in June 2010. The 24-year-old has followed up his best AHL campaign (50 points) with 21 points in 36 contests this year.
“He’s really come into his own this year,” said Rutherford of Sanguinetti. “Earlier in his pro career he struggled with injuries [but] he’s played extremely well in Charlotte the first half of the year.”
Spott said it’ll be up to Murphy to show Hurricanes head coach Kirk Muller he’s as good as or better than Sanguinetti and the other AHLers.
“It’s going to be very, very important for Ryan to show that he not only can create the offence he’s expected to create but be safe defensively and be risk-free defensively,” said Spott. “If he can do that, I think he has an opportunity to contribute and play [in Carolina] this year."