VANCOUVER, B.C. — There was a familiar No. 27 whisking around the ice Friday night at Rogers Arena in Vancouver.
Clad in blue trim instead of the forest green he wore the past four seasons, he was nevertheless unmistakable, with his smooth skating strides, tight turns and no-nonsense game.
Yep, it was the same old Ryan Murray.
Murray might have graduated from the Everett Silvertips, but the rookie with the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets still resembles the player who made his name with the Tips.
“My game is probably a little bit the same,” Murray said following Columbus’ morning skate prior to Friday’s game against the host Vancouver Canucks. “I want to play a similar game and develop into the same kind of player I was in Everett. But obviously at this level it’s hard to be as good. I’d say I keep it a little more simple here, I don’t take quite as many chances, But at the same time I think there’s flashes of it.”
Murray, now 20 years old, is arguably the greatest to ever play for the Silvertips. The defenseman from White City, Saskatchewan, was Everett’s first-round pick in the 2008 bantam draft and was an impact player from the time he arrived as a 15-year-old for the 2009 playoffs.
In 191 regular-season games spanning four seasons with the Tips, he had 22 goals and 99 assists. He added another six goals and 10 assists in 20 playoff contests. He captained the team his final two seasons in Everett, and was named the team’s Most Valuable Player twice.
But while Murray had all the speed and skill to be a flashy player in the Western Hockey League, what made him special was his commitment to his own end, putting his defensive responsibilities ahead of individual glory. That quality is what’s serving him best at the beginning of his NHL career.
“I’m pretty much playing a simple game,” said Murray, one of two former Tips currently in the NHL, along with Tampa Bay defenseman Radko Gudas. “I’m just working hard, and every time on the ice I’m trying as a defenseman to win battles in the corners and do the simple things like moving pucks up. If you’re doing that, you’re doing your job.
“You see how many good players there are in this league, how good they are offensively with the puck,” Murray added. “I’m not the fastest guy in this league, not the most skilled guy. So there’s just so many things you can work on, so many little things like knocking pucks out of the air and chipping off the glass, making sure you get pucks out.”
Murray is actually a year late for his rookie season in the NHL. He was selected second overall in the 2012 NHL draft by Columbus, and he was originally slated to make his debut with the Blue Jackets last season. However, the NHL lockout sent him back to the Tips for the start of the 2012-13 season, and he then suffered a torn labrum in his shoulder last November. The injury required season-ending surgery, thus bringing his junior hockey career to an end and thwarting his chances at cracking the NHL after the lockout ended.
But Murray’s shoulder is now healed, allowing his NHL career to begin.
“It feels good,” Murray said about his shoulder. “I got to take my time on the rehab and didn’t come back and play last year, and now it feels really good. Early in the season it was a little here and there, getting bumps and bruises. But now it’s good. I’m getting used to getting hit again.”
While Murray had physically recovered by the time Columbus’ training camp began in September, his lack of game time meant he wasn’t a lock to make the Blue Jackets’ roster. As a 20-year-old he could have begun the season with the Springfield Falcons, Columbus’ American Hockey League affiliate.
“Training camp was pretty nervous time,” Murray admitted. “There’s so many good defensemen in this organization as well. I hadn’t played a game in nine months by the time training camp came around, so it was a long time between real hockey. It was a nervous time, but I’m happy to be here and I’m going to work hard to stay here.”
Through 23 games with Columbus, Murray has two goals, two assists and six penalty minutes.
Murray has gained more and more trust from the coaching staff as the season has progressed. He began the season getting about 16 minutes of ice time per game. In game No. 10, he crossed the 20-minute threshold for the first time and he’s continued to get 20-plus minutes a game on a regular basis, which puts him among the team leaders in ice time.
Murray has been partnered with Columbus veteran James Wisniewski since training camp, and he considers Wisniewski a mentor.
“Ever since preseason we’ve been playing together and every single day he’s always talking about things,” Murray said. “That’s good for a young guy, getting feedback all the time. He’s helped make me feel comfortable.”
Murray has had his share of star-struck moments, including an encounter with Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby.
“I got on the ice against Crosby a few times,” Murray said. “I kind of knocked him down in the corner one time. He gloved the puck, put it on his stick, got up and spun around all in one motion, then he was gone. That was the only run-in I had with him, but obviously he’s a great player.”
But with every game that passes, Murray is feeling more like he belongs.
“Every game, every time you step on the ice you get a little more comfortable. You make a good play here and there, and you realize, ‘I can do this.’ A good player will come down one-on-one and you stop him, and when you do that a few times it starts clicking that you can do this, you can play here.”
Murray and the Blue Jackets had a rough night Friday against the Canucks as Columbus lost 6-2 and Murray was a minus-3. Murray, who was paired with Jack Johnson because Wisniewski was scratched, nevertheless finished second on the team in ice time at 22:55, just two seconds fewer than Johnson.
Murray may be establishing himself as an NHL regular, but his approach to the game remains the same. He’s still putting team responsibilities ahead of individual accomplishment.
“We just want to win,” Murray said. “We have a good team here, we have an opportunity to win against every team every night. We want to win, and individually if I can help the team win, that’s good enough for me.”
Indeed, his time with the Silvertips is done and he’s plying his trade at the highest level of hockey now. But he’s still the same old Ryan Murray.
Check out Nick Patterson’s Silvertips blog at http://www.heraldnet.com/silvertipsblog, and follow him on Twitter at NickHPatterson.