This was supposed to be year one in the post-Ryan Murray era in Everett. The star defenseman was selected second overall in last year's NHL draft by the Columbus Blue Jackets, he signed an entry-level contract, and he was set to play in the NHL as a 19-year-old. But fate conspired to bring Murray back to Everett. The NHL lockout sent all the elite 18- and 19-year-olds back to their junior teams, including Murray.
And Everett said, "Thank you very much." Suddenly Everett had its captain and best player back. If nothing else, Murray's presence would provide an example for the young newcomers to follow, and he would help ease the team's transition during what was expected to be a short stay.
But then the lockout dragged on. November rolled around and there was no sign of a resolution. The Winter Classic was canceled, an action that was thought to be a bad sign for the NHL season. The possibility of Murray spending the entire season back in juniors started to seem a very real possibility. Even if the lockout was resolved, there was speculation about whether Columbus would want to burn a full year of Murray's contract on such an abbreviated season.
But fate was not on Murray's or Everett's side. On Nov. 16 the Tips were playing in Victoria when Murray collided with the Royals' Logan Nelson. The combination of awkward hit and rough landing left Murray with a torn labrum in his shoulder, an injury that required season-ending surgery.
And just like that Everett's gift was gone.
On the one hand, Everett was deprived its best player for more than half the season, which no doubt negatively affected the Tips' ability to win games. That said, it was probably good for the development of Everett's younger defensemen. Murray's absence opened up 30 minutes of ice time a game, and it forced players into more important roles.
But what if Murray hadn't gotten injured? This is where, "What could have been," comes into play. It's my belief that Murray, had he still been playing for Everett at the Christmas break, would have been traded. While general manager Garry Davidson no doubt liked Murray and admired his abilities, he also didn't have the emotional attachment to Murray that comes from having drafted him, since it was former Tips GM Doug Soetaert who did that. Given Everett was in a full rebuild, and given there was no chance Murray would be back in the WHL as a 20-year-old, Davidson had all the incentive in the world to cash in on his most valuable asset.
Why didn't it happen earlier? Well, no one is going to trade for a player whose availability for the playoffs is unknown. It wasn't until November arrived and the NHL was still locked out that opposing general managers would even think of trying to acquire Murray. The season was just reaching that point when Murray got hurt.
The Tips could have received a king's ransom for Murray. An elite defenseman is capable of making all the difference in the world in the playoffs, and there were certainly some contenders who could have used one. What do you think Saskatoon would have given up to get Murray? Blades general manager Lorne Molleken sold the farm at the 2011 trade deadline to acquire star forward Brayden Schenn, essentially sending Brandon three first-round bantam picks and two second rounders. Murray would have been just as valuable. With Saskatoon hosting this year's Memorial Cup, and considering the silly prices the Blades paid for lesser players at the trade deadline, there's no reason to think the Tips couldn't have received a similar package for Murray. A trade like that could have set Everett up for years.
But alas, it didn't happen. It probably wouldn't have happened even if Murray had stayed healthy. The NHL finally solved its labor issues, and Murray probably would have returned to Columbus. Most of the 19-year-old prospects who were expected to make the NHL were called back up, and Columbus' history with prospects suggests the Blue Jackets would have done the same with Murray. So in all likelihood this is a pointless exercise.
However, in the backs of their minds the Tips will still always wonder what could have been.
Next: 2013-14 preview: Who's behind the bench?
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