*(Not affiliated with the Boston Bruins or the New England Hockey Journal)

Friday, January 7, 2011

Analysis and talking hockey with Kitchener Rangers d-man Ryan Murphy and head coach/GM Steve Spott

Had the opportunity to contact defenseman and potential top-five or top-10 2011 NHL draft prospect Ryan Murphy of the Kitchener Rangers and his head coach (not to mention the GM who drafted him with the third overall OHL pick in 2009), Steve Spott this week.

This was a nice thing because I was at a Rangers game less than a week before, so I had some fresh perspective on what Murphy brings to the table.

The first thing that jumps out at you is his skating-- it's elite. Explosive is one word that describes it well. He has terrific initial burst and top-end straight-line speed. He's also outstanding laterally, crossing over rapidly in smooth, efficient fashion when backing up. When No. 24 is on the ice, you notice him because of the effortless way he gets up and down the ice...and the quick acceleration and multiple skating gears he has.

Murphy's passing ability is top shelf as well. He can make the quick breakout/transition passes with ease. In fact, he makes it look so easy often when it's not, because he's able to thread the needle and keep the puck away from opposition stickblades. This is a skill that if you aren't specifically looking for, you won't appreciate. You can watch hockey games for years and never pick up on the fact that the vision, instincts and then dexterity to hit that play at top speed is something that not every player can master. Murphy is one of those with exceptional passing ability in the transition game.

In Oshawa last week, I watched him, while on the power play, make a perfect tape-to-tape pass to Jason Akeson from the right boards at the offensive blue line all the way down to his teammate just a few feet off the left post. Murphy put the puck through at least three, maybe four players standing between him and Akeson. Unfortunately, Akeson flubbed the pass and by the time he gained control, Oshawa's goalie DiSalvo had gotten over to the post and made the save. I'd like to think that Akeson was so stunned that Murphy hit him with the feed through heavy traffic that he couldn't convert, but I believe that having played with Murphy his Kitchener teammates know what he's capable of.

Murphy has 17 goals in 35 games at the time of this post. He's got that big shot that he can unleash from the point, or a laser wrister he gets off on the fly with little effort. He unloaded a couple of times against DiSalvo, but was unable to find the back of the net. Still, you can see how dangerous he is both with the howitzer and the lightning-fast release.

I talked to him briefly this week before he got on the bus to travel to Sarnia in what was a 3-2 win over the Sting (Murphy didn't register any points in the game, but was a +1).

Murphy talked about being an offensive defenseman who has worked hard not to be seen as a liability in his own end. He said that when he first got to Kitchener, he didn't have a lot of defensive awareness or positioning because while a member of the midget AAA York-Simcoe Express (he scored 30 goals and 95 points in just 34 games-- you read that right-- 95 points as a DEFENSEman) he was go, go, go all the time. He was quick to credit head coach Steve Spott and assistants Paul Fixter and Troy Smith for helping him to be a more effective defensive player.

"They've really been great," Murphy told B2011DW. "I tended to rely on my hockey skills to do everything, but they spent a lot of time teaching me how to be responsible defensively, and I'm still learning, but am better (at playing defense) than I was last season."

Observing Murphy's defensive game against Oshawa, you could see the visible progress. Having alternately been described as "terrifying" and a "gongshow" defensively by NHL scouting sources of mine, I saw none of this from Murphy against Oshawa. He did make a few questionable pinches, but he's so fast that he was able to recover quickly and on one particular play, he not only got up the ice to break it up, but wheeled around and then started the attack with a 40-foot breakout back the other way.

Murphy's coach Spott said that when drafting Murphy, the team was looking for a game-changer and certainly got him.

"He's such a smart player with the way he activates," Spott said. "He sees the ice so well and has that instinctive feel for finding the openings and moving the puck to his teammates for quality scoring chances. He's confident and aggressive with the way he handles the puck, and really, when he's on the ice, it's like having four forwards out there at all times."

How does the coach feel about Murphy's defense?

"He's improved significantly," said Spott. "What you have to understand about Ryan is that he's such a hard worker and is driven to be a better player in all aspects of the game. The first question I get from NHL scouts is, 'Can he defend?' and my answer is: 'Yes, he can!' His hockey IQ is so high, and while he's still working on his strength to win those 1-on-1 puck battles he's smart enough to win a lot of those and he's so competitive that he's able to be effective in his own zone."

As for Murphy himself, he acknowledges that he's still a work in progress.

"I don't think you can ever be satisfied with where you are as an individual player," he said. "Losing to Windsor in last season's playoffs taught me a lot about how far I have to go in my own development."

In addition to the help Murphy has gotten from his Kitchener coaches and teammates, he credits his parents for "Sacrificing a lot" and all their support in being there "in a lot of cold rinks." Murphy also cited his York-Simcoe coach Maurice Catenacci for being a true mentor, coaching him throughout his minor hockey years. The influence and pull of his old minor hockey club still holds some sway for the 17-year-old.

"That team was really special," he said of his old Express mates, several of whom are now skating against him in the OHL. "Every Christmas, we all get together and play some shinny. Even though we may wear different uniforms in the OHL, we're all still very good friends and I think it really speaks well to the bond we had in (midget) hockey and have kept going strong today."

In asking Spott what Murphy will need to do in order to be that high NHL draft pick so many believe him on the verge of becoming, the coach replied: "What Ryan is going to have to overcome is risk. He'll have to deal with it his entire career, and NHL teams will have to decide how much risk they are willing to take with him. I think you saw that question answered a few years ago with a player that can do similar things in Ryan Ellis (Nashville Predators). After watching him in this league and in tournaments like the World Juniors, I don't know that there is any question that he'll wear the (Nashville) sweater. I could see how there would be questions surrounding Ryan Murphy, but when it comes to risk, he's well worth it in my opinion."

Spott acknowledged that Murphy must spend a lot of time in the weight room to improve his strength/add muscle to what is a pretty light body at 176 pounds. But, with the work ethic Murphy has, there is little doubt he'll eventually get there, even if he may not be a natural 'gym rat.'

"He's a lot like Jeff Skinner in that he's one of the first players on the ice, and the last to leave," Spott said of Murphy. "The Zamboni drivers always have to kick him off. He's a great teammate, a great teammate. He's a lot of fun to be around and the guys really appreciate his presence both on and off the ice."


  1. I know i've bragged about Murph for a while now, but do you think he can actually crack the top 5 Kirk? I'm having a hard time putting him in there. After watching Larsson at the WJC and get better and better each game and what he can do, there's no question he is the top d man in the draft, but they are 2 entirely different players.

    I'm just having a hard time putting him in with Larson, Couturier, Landeskog and Saad. I havent seen RNH so could he possibly move ahead of him?

    Again, thanks for all the work you put into this. Your efforts dont go unnoticed by this reader !

  2. As always, thanks for the feedback. These things tend to write themselves.

    As for cracking the top-five, he's certainly a darkhorse. On paper, he doesn't appear to be in the running, but funny thing is-- all it takes for one team picking in that range to be sold on his talent and upside and he'll be picked there.

    I was watching the ESPN documentary on Tim Tebow the other night, and most of the pundits out there predicted he wasn't going to be picked in the 1st round last April. As we all know, Denver coveted him and made sure they traded up to get him.

    Not comparing Murphy to Tebow, but it serves as a reminder that all of us pundits are just that-- on the outside and not part of the teams' decision-making process. Sean Couturier didn't do a great deal to show that he's the consensus No. 1 pick at the WJC, but some scouts will tell you that they don't put a ton of stock in the tournament, either.

    It's just food for thought, but do I see Murphy as a top-five right now? If you're more of a "safe pick" guy, no. But, if you're more of a riverboat gambler, then absolutely. I was really impressed with the dynamic element of his game in Oshawa. He didn't get the production, but for Bruins fans, this is precisely the kind of player who will wow you.

    Murphy to me is a faster, more aggressive, harder, more deadly-shooting Steve Kampfer. That's the one comparable I would use to help people envision the type of player Murphy is. He isn't as thick and has a lot of work to do in the weight room, but his upside is significantly higher than Kampfer's is, IMO-- and I've been highly impressed with Kampfer since seeing him the 1st time in July at Bruins D-camp.