As Blue Jackets fans, I’m sure you’ve read a lot of prognostications on the CBJ’s season. Most of these (including my own) have harped on the issues the team could have this coming season. Regression from Sergei Bobrovsky. Not taking enough shots. Not controlling the play enough. A lack of goal scorers. There is one x-factor that could render two these issues moot, and turn two of those issues into strengths. If you read the title, then you can probably guess that I’m referring to Ryan Murray. In my opinion, Murray is the key cog in whether or not the Jackets have a successful year. Yes, Marian Gaborik scoring 40 goals would be huge. As would and early return from Nathan Horton and 25 goals in 60 games from him. Bob staying true to last seasons form would also be great. Boone Jenner sticking on the top line and being a Calder candidate would also be a boon to their chances (sorry, that joke was terrible). However, none of those will have the same impact as what Murray could do.
That’s a huge statement. But look, we KNOW Marian Gaborik has a lot of talent. We know that a healthy Gaborik, playing 82 games, getting the best offensive minutes, and the most powerplay time, is going to score over the 30 goals. It’s pretty much a fact. Same with Nathan Horton. He’s been a pretty consistent point producer, with the major factor being games played in terms of goal fluctuations. Boone isn’t going to be an all star this year, so a Calder-esque year from him would be great, but that actually helps the bottom of the lineup more (ie. Boone’s production = Mark Letestu‘s from last year, while Letestu >>>> Derek Mackenzie). Obviously, Bobrovsky is vital, but does anyone really think he’s going to repeat last year? I think we all expect a decline from “otherworldly” to just “very good”. That decline, will probably come very close to canceling out the added production from Gaborik, Horton and (potentially) Jenner.
For a supposed defensive team, the Jackets gave up a shocking number of shots last year (12th most in the NHL), while taking very few (27th overall). That is the real problem they have. Gaborik and Horton will help here. Both have a long history of putting rubber on net, and having better players in the lineup generally translates to fewer shots against. But even then, they are an average team in allowing shots, while a below average team at generating shots. Not good enough to be a playoff team in the ridiculous Metropolitan division. This team needs something to create a massive shift in puck possession. And I think Ryan Murray can be that shift.
Why? Three reasons. First, The importance of puck moving defensemen. Murray can move the puck in a hurry, either with excellent passing, or his awe inspiring skating. A single defenseman can have such a massive impact on the game strictly due to how much ice time they play, and how important they are to moving play in the right direction. It is not a coincidence that the last seven Stanley Cup winners possessed this kind of player (Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty, Zdeno Chara, Keith again, Kris Letang, Nick Lidstrom, Scott Niedermayer). When you spend half the game with an instant breakout on the ice, it removes pressure from your forwards (allowing them to focus on creating offensively), removes pressure on your goaltender, and demoralizes the other team (so frustrating to think you’ve got a team hemmed in, then be playing defense immediately). This brings me to reason number two.
Jack Johnson. Last year, Johnson played the Keith/Doughty/Letang/Lidstrom/Niedermayer role, and he is just not up to the task. I don’t think he’s as dreadful as a lot of others do, but he is not the kind of guy to take on that role. With some creative line matching, zone starts, and powerplay time, Johnson could be a very good player. But the Jackets need another minute muncher actually capable of doing all the things that aforementioned group of defesemen do. Fedor Tyutin is a good start, but ideally he’d play the Brent Seabrook to Murray’s Duncan Keith. I think Murray has the chance to supplant Johnson as the Jackets big minute dman, allowing a Tyutin-Murray pairing to play the tough minutes, and a Johnson-James Wisniewski pairing to either feast on opponents weaker player, or be split up into very dangerous second and third pairings.
The final reason? Murray is just that good. I was figuring he’d start this year in Springfield, but there is no need for it. One preseason game and it was clear. However, his OT winner against Pittsburgh really lays out everything he does so well. A refresher, in case you forgot it already:
That goal has everything. It starts with great defensive positioning, continues with a great immediate read to jump into the play, shows off his unbelievable skating ability, and concludes with a nice finish. Let’s break these parts down one by one. First, the defensive positioning. It was one of his more impressive assets in the preseason, which can’t be easy when playing with James Wisniewski. Murray was rarely ever out of position, and his skating allows him to very slightly cheat in clever ways and still recover. You can see the basis for a Duncan Keith type defender, who never overpowers, but is so hard to play against because he’s just everywhere. And it’s not like he’s defending Tanner Glass on that play either. That’s Evgeni Malkin who Murray forces wide and attempts to lull him into a hard drive wide (which Malkin eschews for a bad pass broken up by Letestu).
Now exciting part number two of that goal: the read to jump into the play. This is just a natural talent. Some guys look like they should know how to jump into the play but just can’t (cough Kris Russell cough), or just always do it even when unwise (cough Jack Johnson cough). Murray immediately processes that he’s got Malkin beat, Neal caught deep, and Niskanen up in the play. That is the ideal time for the defenseman to press the issue. That he makes that read immediately, and against superstars like Malkin and Neal shows me he’s ready to make those reads in the real NHL right now. It’s such a huge component that I didn’t think he had. Just a split second to consider whether he should jump up or not and it’s already too late. But he’s got the awareness to know immediately. Very impressive.
Exciting part number three: the skating. Sweet mother of all that is holy does Murray have a gorgeous stride. Effortless, yet powerful, both quick and fast, and can fly without burning a ton of energy. It’s only a handful of strides, but he easily beats Malkin and Neal back, with enough space to coast enough to find space. He’s already one of the better skating defensemen in the league, and that ability makes the Keith comparison I keep making even more apt.
Finally, the finish. It’s not a crazy Wisniewski-esque bomb or anything, but it didn’t need to be. It was a perfectly placed shot, exactly where it needed to be. A lot of guys would have been tempted to force another pass (something of a rookie lack of confidence), or try to make another move (to prove he could), or just step into a slapshot (to show off the gun), but Murray just makes the right play.
That’s what jumps out most about Murray. He just makes the right play. Repeatedly. He’s a rookie, and he’s going to make mistakes, and he’s going to have off nights. But that skating, positioning, and awareness put the floor very high. When he’s off, he’s still going to be an effective player, just not a special one. When he’s on, he’s got a Norris caliber ceiling right now. I’m not saying he’s even in the consideration for it this year, but I bet he puts everything together a few times this season and looks as good as any defenseman in the league. If he can do that enough times to bump Johnson for the #1 defenseman spot, and continue that level of play for 25 minutes a night, the Jackets will easily be a playoff team.