The yin and the yang of Ryan Murphy was summarized in one game for Canada at the World Junior Championships. He had a goal and two assists against Russia in the bronze-medal game, driving the Canadian offense from the blue line and scoring the third-period goal that sent the game to overtime.
And then, with the medal hanging in the balance, Russia’s Valeri Nichushkin flew past Murphy at the left circle, cut in on goal and sent Canada home empty-handed.
This is what the Carolina Hurricanes have in the 12th overall pick in the 2011 draft: A 19-year-old defenseman with the kind of skill, speed and guile you can only find in the first round, but with raw fundamentals at the position and a teen’s body – 176 pounds on a 5-foot-11-inch frame – that may not yet be ready for the physical pounding an NHL defenseman takes.
The Hurricanes can give him a five-game audition this season before they have to decide whether to send him back to his junior team in Kitchener, Ontario, but they already have a pretty good idea of what they have in Murphy right now. It’s what he can become – with proper coaching, nutrition and conditioning – that is the mystery. They may not get an answer for years.
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“I have nothing to lose right now,” Murphy said. “I’m a 19-year-old guy; I’m still eligible to play junior for a couple years, and I have nothing to lose. That’s how I’m going to approach it. I’m going to play my own game, and at the end of the day, whether it’s playing here or playing in Kitchener, I’m going to be happy.”
For the Hurricanes, the big question is: will he be a specialty player or will he be a special player?
At the worst, he should be able to help out on the power play at some point down the road. If the rest of his game comes together, he might be able to do a lot more. Because he’s such a dominant, free-wheeling player at the junior level, the Hurricanes don’t think they’ll get an answer until he’s playing regularly in the NHL.
“Until we get him in here on a full-time basis and get him going in one direction the way we want him to be, we’re not going to see the type of player he is,” Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said. “In junior, he can do whatever he wants. We need to get (assistant coach) Dave Lewis working with him. The disadvantage he has today is we don’t have the luxury of 82 games to work him into the lineup.”
Murphy’s eventual development is critical to the franchise because it has been feast or famine in the first round recently. Jeff Skinner (2010) was a massive hit, and Brandon Sutter (2007) was a solid choice. Zach Boychuk (2008) has yet to crack the NHL roster, although he may change that during this training camp. Philippe Paradis (2009) was a total bust, sloughed off in less than six months.
Picks in 2006 and 2012 were traded away – the latter along with Sutter for Jordan Staal along with another defensive prospect, Brian Dumoulin – only increasing the pressure on Murphy to pan out and keep the pipeline of talent to the NHL flowing.
Particularly with Murphy’s unique situation, it’s important to remember that the development curve of a defenseman is measured in years, not months, but the Hurricanes have time and the willingness to be patient.
No one – not the Hurricanes, not Murphy – knows how long this process will take or where it will end up. For now, they’ll watch, and wait, and wonder.