Don Cherry’s been called a number of things over the year — prophetic is not one of them, but if Kitchener Rangers’ defenseman Ryan Murphy continues to play the way he has to start this young OHL campaign, Cherry may be able to add that label to his hockey resume.
Last year, Cherry took to the Canadian national airwaves during a Coach’s Corner segment and stated that the Aurora, ON-born blueliner could be the first pick in the 2011 NHL entry draft. With a dynamic start that’s propelled him to the top of the OHL scoring leader boards, the blueliner is certainly making people take notice.
“He’s got to make people think, because I’ll tell you what — he’s different,” Rangers’ head coach and general manager Steve Spott said. “He’s like no one else in this league. You can’t get to him, you can’t hit him. He’s a kid that’s slippery, his vision is second to none, his hockey sense is second to none.
“He can skate and he’s got a rocket. He’s got all the intangibles to be an all-star not only in this league, but the National Hockey League.”
The Cherry praise came as a surprise to the defenseman, but he said he’s enjoying the added attention that the comment has created.
“Hearing Don Cherry say those things made people expect a lot from me, which I guess is a good thing, but with team success comes individual success,” Murphy said. “The further we go in the playoffs, the more individual success Gabriel [Landeskog — a fellow projected first-rounder] and I will have.
“I just try to go out there and take it game by game. We just try to do our thing out there and forget about who is watching us and just play the game like we always have.”
There have been a number of solid games over the course of Murphy’s two-year OHL career, but last night’s 8-2 victory against the London Knights in London could be a candidate for his statement game. Murphy finished as the game’s well-deserved first star after contributing a goal and four assists in the contest. In addition, three of those points, including the goal courtesy of a Howitzer-like shot from the point, came on the power play — a situation of strength for the young 17-year-old blueliner.
“I’ve just been getting the pucks to the net and the forwards have been doing the work from there,” Murphy said. “We have a great power play so far, the forwards have been great, and I’ve just been getting some luck, I guess — and everyone needs that.”
Whether it’s Chinese red lanterns, rabbits’ feet, horseshoes, or an adherence to the old adage that hard work makes its own luck, Murphy’s been reaping the rewards. In 15 games, he’s scored 10 goals, added 17 assists, and, at plus-six, he’s amongst the team’s leaders in that category. His 27 points currently finds him atop the OHL scoring leaderboard, along with Garrett Wilson (FLA) and Nail Yakupov. In addition, he has a 13-point lead over the next closest competitors, Michael D’Orazio and Josh McFadden, in scoring by defensemen.
Asked if Murphy could lead the OHL — a league that’s usually dominated by 19-year-olds and overagers — in scoring at the tender age of 17, his coach is unequivocal in his assessment.
“Absolutely,” Spott said. “Ryan Murphy’s a phenom. I’ve said it since day one — he’s a phenom and for me I think that for whoever drafts him into the National Hockey League they’re going to get a very special player because he’s different.
“He’s like nobody else in the league right now and I think he’s one of the bright young stars in our league.”
But as dominant as Murphy has been offensively, he’s taking particular pride in his defensive work. Last year, despite scoring six goals and adding 33 assists in 62 games, Murphy finished the 2009-10 season at minus-three. This year he’s a plus-six player and he attributes coaching to the improvement.
“I think since I’ve come into the league, my coaches Troy Smith and Paul Fixter taught me a lot about the defensive side of the game, so I don’t think that’s a problem any more,” Murphy said. “I want to be reliable in my own end and I want to contribute offensively as well.”
Spott explained that one of Murphy’s strengths is his ability to understand his limitations and play to his strengths. Knowing that defensive play is one of the largest question marks remaining in Murphy’s long-term projections, Spott said he is proud of how his young blueliner has addressed those concerns.
“Give him credit. He can’t get into one-on-one strength battles, but he’s smart enough to contain and he’s smart enough to understand what he has to do,” Spott said. “He knows the NHL scouts are going to pick him apart defensively and he’s really done a nice job addressing that.
“I think he might be our top plus/minus leader right now and he’s addressing the critics when it comes to that. But that’s the question he has to answer.”
The other question surrounds something that Murphy can’t address through hard work or watching game tape — his size. Listed at 5’11 and 176 pounds, Murphy may have to deal with some long-standing prejudices that would prevent someone at his size from being selected first overall, despite a skill set that scouts would have no problem advocating selecting a similar player with four extra inches.
“I’ve challenged a lot of the scouts that come in from the NHL [who ask] ‘Is he too small?’ or ‘Is he big enough?’” Spott said. “I’m telling you, they said the same thing about Jeff Skinner [drafted seventh overall by the Hurricanes] last year asking ‘Is he too small and does he skate well enough?’ and Carolina looks pretty smart right now.”
In addition to potentially paving the way to the draft stage, the 5’10 Skinner has also had a greater impact on the player himself, Murphy explained.
“Watching Jeff Skinner go through all this last year, he handled it very well I thought,” Murphy said. “He was a leader on and off the ice, he did everything right, and he scored 50 goals, obviously, which did him a lot of good in the draft.
“I just want to follow in his shoes — maybe play in the prospects’ game. And maybe at the end of the year I’ll be happy with my game.”
Murphy has drawn comparisons to another OHL defenseman of traditionally NHL-questionable size — Ryan Ellis, who was selected 11th overall by the Nashville Predators in 2009. However, Spott said that Murphy’s path to the NHL has been partially paved by a player who has enjoyed an 11-year NHL career to date.
“It’s not just Ryan Ellis, it’s guys like Brian Rafalski,” Spott explained. “I think players like that, who Ryan can look to and say the game’s changed over the last five years. Guys like him can now have success in the National Hockey League.”
Murphy admitted that he’s been encouraged by Ellis’ performance — including his addition to Team Canada’s entry in last year’s World Junior Championship. And he said he’s hoping he gets the opportunity to follow in the other Ryan’s skates — even if that means being added as a power-play specialist, like Ellis was.
“For sure it’s inspiring watching him play as a 17 year old,” he said. “Any role they want, if I make the team, any role that they give me I’ll take and I’ll do it to the best of my ability.”
Murphy has added motivation to make the WJC squad this year after a disappointing summer that saw him surprisingly left off the roster of Canada’s under-18 squad. He’s using that exclusion as motivation for his drive towards the roster for this year’s marquee junior tournament.
“Yeah, that’d be unbelievable to make the World Junior try-out,” Murphy said. “Obviously in the summer I was let go from the under-18 Team Canada team, which I didn’t really agree with but they won the gold medal, so good for them.
“I just want to prove to them that I do fit into Hockey Canada and their way of game play and I just want to prove to everyone that I can play on Team Canada one day.”
His coach, no stranger to the World Juniors himself, feels that the experience would be a great opportunity for his young blueliner and that Murphy’s quick start to the season should make some people on the selection committee take notice.
“I think it’s huge. Any time you can play in pressure situations, having been there last year myself, I can tell you it’s a whole different pressure,” Spott said. “I’ve coached in two Memorial Cups and I can tell you the World Juniors is a lot more pressure in a different way than even the Memorial Cup because you’re wearing your country’s sweater.
“I think [he’s] the type of kid that can handle that type of pressure. I think Ryan’s given Hockey Canada a lot to think about right now.”
Although this is a pressure-packed season for Murphy, he’s joined by a few other draft-eligible teammates on the Rangers’ roster, including the team’s captain Gabriel Landeskog. Murphy explained that he appreciates the fact that he can share this experience with others going through the same pressures.
“For sure it’s a lot easier,” Murphy said. “We have a lot of draft-eligible guys on the team, so sometimes we all talk about it and we get the goosebumps just talking about it. Gabriel and I, we’re looking forward to the draft for sure, and being there together — it’s going to be a great experience.”
And if Spott’s beliefs in the uniqueness of his blueliner are shared by NHL scouts and player development personnel, Murphy’s experience will be special.
“For me with the way the game is played now and the emphasis being placed on skill, for me he’s probably the most skilled guy in this draft,” Spott said. “He just is. And I love Gabriel Landeskog, I love Adam Larsson, I love Tobias Rieder, but Ryan is different.
“Ryan is a kid that has those gifts that other players don’t have.”