One of my favorite recurring Twitter things among CBJ fans was the praise heaped at Ryan Murray. It was a treat to watch him play this year. That’s a totally subjective evaluation, and so are the claims that he looked cool under pressure, controlled with the puck, and seemed to be a great skater. I happen to agree with all those ideas, and I’ll have to dole out a stern talking-to if you don’t think this play isn’t just the coolest.
Yes, Ryan Johansen has become a brilliant player and I’m a fan of his effort on the goal (Johansen’s the subject of a future post), but did you see that pass?! Holy smokes you guys! That was a damn rookie d-man springing a guy through the LA Kings. I think this is my single favorite play of the Blue Jackets’ regular season. An underlying reason for that feeling is what this event promises: these two players are the future of the franchise. In one glorious pass and dangling finish we get to see them working together.
But like most things, I’m unwilling to believe a few seconds as illustration of the whole season. Sure, the pass was a moment of catharsis. Was Ryan Murray actually worthy of our adoration beyond that single blip? Thankfully, the answer to that is “yes.”
Before We Get to Murray
I’m going to start this by unleashing a caveat to all that follows. If you’d rather jump right into the effusive praise, feel free to skip this section and go to “And Now, Ryan Murray.”
The Columbus Blue Jackets (as a whole) made a huge leap after about 1/3 of the season passed. Tyler Dellow offered some perspective on the issue in a April post titled “Where the Blue Jackets Got Better.” He pinpoints this change through Extra Skater’s close score Fenwick plot, noting that 11/30 is where the turnaround took off. I’d recommend reading that entire article to give context to the CBJ progress over the course of the season. As I’ll get to shortly, Ryan Murray was among those who saw a big boost in his individual performance post-11/30.
The question now shifts to “why.” Why did the Blue Jackets make this sudden possession performance change? It’s a sharp jump that pushes the team from a Fenwick % of 42.5% (a value that would only be above Buffalo and Toronto), to 50.8% at season’s end (above water and 6th among Eastern Conference teams). It’s a shift that happens for a large chunk of the roster. Dellow suggests that for the biggest player boosts, saying perhaps “something changed with how Anisimov, Jenner and Foligno were told to play.” He also mentions that for Jenner and Murray, rookie growth and adjustment may factor into their individual gains. I may dig a bit more into the team to see if I can find a better or more definitive “why,” but it’s clear the Jackets reaped benefit from whatever adjustments happened after 11/30.
As we consider Murray’s performance, I think we should do so with team changes in mind. Is Murray riding the wave of overall improvement? Is he individually responding to the coaching changes in a positive way? Is it just player growth that’s sending Murray to new heights? If the answer is “yes” to the second of these three questions, then our impressions of Murray are made even more positive.
And Now, Ryan Murray
With all that out of the way, let’s get at the performance of Ryan Murray. From a possession standpoint, Murray was a great addition to the Blue Jackets. He was 2nd among Columbus d-men in 5-on-5 CF% (only behind the underrated play of James Wisniewski). It’s worth noting that the same disclaimers to Wiz apply to Murray, as the two spent so much time paired together: these d-men spent a great deal of time sheltered (given more offensive zone starts than defensive ones, not facing the toughest competition of CBJ d-men). Nevertheless, the first blush takeaway is that Murray did perform in a positive way in the minutes given. In short, he didn’t screw it up.
As for his individual performance over the course of the season, we can take a look at Murray’s 5 game CF% average to get a glimpse at the general trends in his game. Data for this graph were taken from Murray’s page on Extra Skater.
Murray experienced ups and downs, but he generally fared well over the whole season. He was most impressive in a 20 game stretch from late December through early February (12/21 through 2/1). In this stint, Murray was only sub-50% three times, and hit 60% or higher in 8 games.
Of course, I don’t think we should assign this stretch any extra value just because it was good for Columbus fans (it was only 30 percent of his games played). Over those 20 games, Murray’s CF% was a scorching 59.1% (!!!), but through the rest of the season Murray had a 48.3%.
The latter value is by no means bad for a rookie d-man. It’s just worth remembering that we should look at all the data present. (But while we’re decreasing sample sizes, consider this aside: Seth Jones had a season-long CF% of 49.5%, or +2.0% relative to team. Excluding Murray’s best third of games, the Columbus player is nearly equal to his peer.)
How did Murray’s season progress? Remembering to consider the team-wide performance context, Murray’s 1st half featured a CF% of 50%. Over the second half? An impressive 53.3%. I’d like to believe that the improvement came due to Murray’s growth or response to coaching, but it’s hard to say right now. At the very least, his individual performance was strong, and it’ll be exciting to watch what happens next year.
Looking Across the League
Murray’s place in the NHL overall is also worth noting. Among all d-men with 62 or more gamed played, Murray ranked 48th in 5-on-5 CF%. Taken relative to team, Murray was an astounding 21st. If we were to assume an even talent distribution (and we shouldn’t, but just imagine), not every NHL team would get a Ryan Murray (or using non-relative values, teams would only get 1-2 players at Murray’s level). Ryan Murray is a rookie, and he’s ranking as a 1st pairing d-men in some impressive metrics. We have to remember (again) that he’s not facing top competition, but that’s a pretty great start.
And how about Murray’s scoring? The Blue Jacket fares admirably here. Post-lockout, Murray is 35th out of 87 rookie d-men in points per game (via Hockey Reference, with players requiring 40 or more games). Comparing only among players since the 2010-11 season, Murray lands 14th out of 29 in points per game. Murray’s point performance was by no means overwhelming, but he performed in slightly above average compared to other defensive rookies.
What Comes Next?
We’ve learned that Ryan Murray was an excellent possession player last year, potentially worth considering as a top-30 level CF% producer. He also supplied a good-not-great offensive output for the Jackets, and was simply fun to follow on the ice. Oh, and he was a rookie. I’d say that’s a great way to open an NHL career. The hope, of course, is that Murray continues to grow (he won’t turn 21 until late September), both developing his game and continuing his acclimation to the NHL.
Further, Murray’s role as a proper “top pairing d-man” won’t actually come to fruition until he starts taking tougher minutes and proving he can execute versus elite competition. There are hints of this, but only just hints at this point. Nick Biss leaves this tantalizing suggestion about play vs Crosby from Hockey Analysis.
But no matter what happens next, we can look back on the 2013-14 Blue Jackets season and see Ryan Murray as a legitimate bright spot. And considering the season’s success for Columbus, that’s pretty high praise.