By Kirk Luedeke
Ryan Murphy is one of the more dynamic players at any position in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, and based on some projections he could be on the board when the Boston Bruins pick at No. 9.
The Bruins’ Stanley Cup hangover may be lingering in some areas, but for the team’s amateur scouting staff, the work they have done all season will come to fruition this weekend in St. Paul, Minn.
The Stanley Cup champions have two uncharacteristically high picks in the draft by virtue of trades with Toronto and Minnesota, and that first-round selection in the top-10 could net a player like Murphy if things break right.
The 5-foot-11, 175-pound rearguard is one of the best pure skaters in the draft and has elite puck-handling and shooting skills. Reminiscent of former NHL defenseman Phil Housley, Murphy can both rush the puck and pass it with extraordinary effectiveness.
“I’m a smaller defenseman, so there’s obviously a big question about my strength,” said Murphy, after he finished the fitness testing at the NHL scouting combine earlier this month. “I wanted to go in here and do my best at everything. I did that and have no regrets and hopefully I did enough.”
For Murphy, the combine itself was a memorable experience, the culmination of a successful 2010-11 campaign for him. Playing for the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL, Murphy finished second in scoring to overager (and 2009 Nashville first-rounder) Ryan Ellis among defensemen with 26 goals and 79 points, a remarkable scoring performance for a player who didn’t turn 18 until the end of the regular season.
“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “I got to hang out with a lot of my buddies. For the most part we were on our own. I thought that was pretty cool -- we got to go out for dinner with all the guys and got to know some new people, so it was a really fun week and I’m going to remember it for a long time.”
During the whirlwind week of interviews with 23 of 30 NHL teams and the fitness testing, Murphy had a little time to reflect on the experience and was looking forward to some additional time with clubs who invited him to their cities for more interviews and testing.
For an NHL draft prospect, the last couple of weeks are some of the most exciting, as they get to see the inside of several organizations and get a quick introduction to how things run in pro hockey.
“I know there’s a couple of teams I’m going to do some extra workouts with,” he said. “I’m going to fly down to a couple of places, but that’s about it.”
Murphy confirmed that New Jersey, which holds the fourth overall pick by virtue of winning the draft lottery, was one of the places he was bound for. He also reportedly visited Boston and met with the team before the combine as well.
Even with Murphy’s impressive individual achievements this year, the collective and team success eluded him.
Murphy’s favored Rangers were upset by the Plymouth Whalers in the OHL postseason’s opening round, but the native of Aurora, Ont., played well in the series, earning praise from NHL scouts in attendance.
“I thought he looked like a top-five pick at times,” said one Ontario-based NHL scout. “He was improved defensively, but he also brought that speed and game-breaking element he’s most noted for. He helped himself there.”
The early playoff exit meant that Murphy flew over to Germany to join Team Canada in the World Under-18 Championship tournament. Canada lost a heartbreaker to eventual champion Team USA in the semifinals, coming back from a 4-1 deficit in the third period only to lose the game in sudden death on a Tyler Biggs strike.
Canada then lost the bronze medal game to Russia, ending a promising early tourney performance in disappointment.
“It was a disappointing tournament; we finished fourth,” Murphy said. “I thought we were right there with the other teams. The Americans, we lost in overtime. The Swedes, we took them to the very end and also the Russians, we took to the very end. I thought we had a really good team. (But) we came up short in the end.”
Murphy led his team in scoring from the blue line, registering a Canada-record 13 points in just seven games.
“Personally, I thought I had a good tournament,” he said. “I put up some points (and) I played well defensively, so I’m happy with my game.”
Even with the offensive success and the steady improvements in his overall game since breaking into the OHL a year ago, Murphy is aware of his shortcomings and what could prevent him from having the same kind of success at the NHL level.
“I think there’s a lot to work on,” Murphy said. “I’m the same as any player here. We’re not all perfect. We all have our faults in our games, so I’m going to have to work on my strength, obviously to excel at the next level, and I’m going to have to work on my defensive zone coverage.”
Because Murphy was often the best player on his minor teams before reaching major junior, he was often left to his own devices to attack the other team with his tremendous wheels and puck skills. As a result, his defensive awareness was lacking, but he spent a lot of time this season addressing his positional play.
“This year I worked a lot with my coaches,” he said. “I went from being a minus player my first year to a plus-23, so that was a huge jump for me. My coaches trusted me on the ice during penalty kills. They played me in 5-on-5 situations and 4-on-4 situations, so they trusted me in the defensive zone and hopefully my next team can, too.”
If some scouts are a little unsure whether Murphy can be a reliable rotational defender, and not just a power play specialist in the NHL, Kitchener GM and head coach Steve Spott feels his charge is a star-in-waiting.
“He absolutely can be a top-pairing defenseman, 100 percent,” Spott said. “He’s intelligent, hard-working and is proving himself every day.”
Murphy heard the questions come up about his defensive acumen during the many interviews he conducted and just tried to be as forthright as possible.
“For the most part they know what I can do,” he said. “The offense isn’t the question mark for me; it’s the defense. Their question is, ‘Can I play defense at the next level?’ My answer was ‘Yes, I can play defense at the next level’ and I’m just looking forward to the opportunity.”
Kirk Luedeke can be reached at email@example.com