EVERETT — The suggestion seems ridiculous now, but Ryan Murray was a consolation prize.
Flash back to the 2008 bantam draft. The draft class was rich in high-end playmaking centers, and the Everett Silvertips were determined to nab one. However, the Tips were slotted at ninth overall, meaning it was unlikely any of those top pivotmen would be available at their pick.
So, Everett general manager Doug Soetaert was determined to move up. He wasn’t going to be able to maneuver himself for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who ended up going first overall to Red Deer, but the likes of Michael St. Croix, Mark McNeill and Brent Benson were within his grasp. Three spots, it turned out, was all he had to move to land one of that trio, and he was willing to pay handsomely for those few positions.
But no one bit, and the Tips were stuck picking in their own spot.
Sometimes the best trade is the one you don’t make.
Everett had to “settle” for Murray, and just months into his rookie season, the diminutive defenseman with the flashy skills is proving to be the grand prize rather than the consolation.
“It’s a good thing it didn’t happen,” Soetaert said of the possible trade. “It’s funny how things work out sometimes.”
n n n
Watching a Silvertips game, Murray immediately stands out. His poise, his confidence, they’re the hallmarks of a mature game.
Hard to believe he didn’t turn 16 until after the season began.
“I think it’s going pretty good,” Murray said about his rookie season. “I’ve got a lot of confidence and I just feel comfortable out there.”
That’s something of an understatement. Just how good has Murray been?
First, there’s the statistical answer. Going into the weekend, the native of White City, Saskatchewan, had appeared in just 15 games, having missed time with a broken thumb. In those 15 games, he had one goal and 13 assists, and his plus-18 rating placed him in the league’s top 10.
Then there’s the responsibilities answer. Since opening day, Murray has been skating alongside Radko Gudas on Everett’s No. 1 defensive pairing and logging heavy minutes against opponents’ top lines. He also mans the center point position on Everett’s top power-play unit.
Finally, there’s the visual answer. Watching Murray on the ice is akin to observing a tiger in the jungle: everything comes instinctually. He always seems to make the right play with no apparent thought required, wasting no time with his passes and putting them exactly where they need to be.
“I think he’s been outstanding,” Everett coach Craig Hartsburg said. “A lot of nights he’s our best defenseman. He’s learning, there are things that are new to him at this level. But the poise and strength and mental focus he has for a 16-year-old is as good as any 16-year-old I’ve seen.”
His accomplishments are all the more special because he is a defenseman. Sixteen-year-old players who have an impact in the league tend to be forwards who can afford to make mistakes because the defense is there to cover for them. When a defenseman makes a mistake, the puck might end up in the back of the net. Murray seems to have missed the memo about making rookie mistakes.
It’s no wonder there already are whispers about Murray being a first-round NHL draft pick when he’s eligible in 2012.
n n n
When the Tips drafted Murray, there were no concerns about his abilities as a hockey player. The skills, the smarts, the hockey sense — those were all apparent the first time one witnessed Murray on the ice.
The only concern about Murray was his size.
“The biggest question as a bantam was how big he was going to get, because he was 5-9,” Soetaert recalled. “You’re taking a 5-9 defenseman. We knew his dad had good size, but it was a risk. We knew he had the hockey sense and the ability, we just didn’t know if physically he was going to mature.”
The Tips got one part right — Murray has continued to grow. Just five feet tall during his first year playing bantam, he’s now listed at an even 6-foot.
But getting taller was just part of the equation. Getting stronger also was required for Murray to have an impact as a 16-year-old. That light came on for Murray almost exactly a year ago when he spent a week practicing with the Tips.
“I came down here at Christmastime last year and I saw how hard these guys work, how big and strong they are, and the coaches were telling me to get bigger and stronger,” Murray explained. “I saw how good these guys were, and how much time and effort I was going to have to put in to play here, so that really motivated me.”
Murray hit the gym in the offseason, adding 15 pounds of muscle. He now weighs a solid 185 pounds, and his additional strength is what’s allowed him to withstand the bigger and older forwards in the league.
“The biggest thing for young players to understand to play in this league as a 16-year-old is the strength you have to have,” Soetaert said. “If you’re going to play regular, you’ve got to have the strength because you’re going up against kids three or four years older than you, and naturally they’re stronger.
“(Murray) worked on his strength,” Soetaert added. “He worked hard this summer and he was ready to step in and play. That’s pretty special for a young man to commit himself like that.”
n n n
Murray previewed his rookie season during last season’s playoffs. He made his WHL debut in Game 1 of Everett’s first-round series against Tri-City, and just 1 minute, 55 seconds into his career he recorded his first point, notching an assist on the power play.
But even though Murray skated a regular shift during the series, no one expected him to have the type of immediate impact he’s had this season.
“Our expectations of him coming in was to have him hopefully play in the top six (defensemen), somewhere in the four-five-six area,” Soetaert said. “But obviously he’s beyond our expectations at this point in time.”
High praise for a player who came to Everett as Plan B.
Nick Patterson’s Silvertips blog: http://www.heraldnet.com/silvertipsblog