Between a breakout season from Ryan Johansen, another dominating year for Bob, and an underrated top tier performance from James Wisniewski, there’s no shortage of great stories to share from last season’s Blue Jackets team. One of my favorite things was the emergence and growth of Ryan Murray. During many games, the #CBJ feed on Twitter would just heap praise at the rookie d-man, and I couldn’t help but agree. I subjectively state he was fun to watch, but it’s an opinion others have shared. He was often described as cool under pressure and controlled with the puck. My favorite moment from Murray was this breakout pass versus Los Angeles.
Yes, the Johansen goal is fun and the forward’s breakout year is worth talking about. But did you see that pass?! Holy smokes! To review: that’s a rookie d-man springing a guy through the Stanley Cup champion 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: Murray and Johansen 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 label a few seconds as indicative of Murray’s whole season. Sure, this pass was a moment of catharsis. Was Ryan Murray actually worth our praise beyond this single blip? Thankfully, the answer to that is “yes.”
I’m going to start this by discussing a caveat to all that follows. If you’d rather jump right into the effusive praise, feel free to skip ahead 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 this issue in an April post titled “Where the Blue Jackets Got Better.” Unfortunately, his recent hire by the Oilers means his website isn’t available now. In short, he pinpointed the CBJ change through Extra Skater’s close score Fenwick plot, noting that 11/30 is where the turnaround took off. 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 shot metric performance change? It’s a sharp jump that pushes the team from a Fenwich percentage of 42.5% (a total that would have finished only 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 suggested for the bigger 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 that the Jackets reaped benefit from whatever adjustments happened after 11/30.
As we consider Murray’s performance, I think we should do so with the team 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 to the final two questions is “yes,” 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 solid 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. They 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 played in a positive way with the given minutes.
As for 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 generally fared well over the whole season (the later half gap comes thanks to his injury in Toronto on 3/3). 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% in Corsi for precentage three times, and hit 60% or higher in 8 games.
Of course, I don’t think we should assign that span 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.
Furthermore, some of the biggest drops on Murray’s 5 game average CF% plot are thanks to a few forgettable single games. On 12/19 vs the Flyers, Murray managed a painful 16.1% CF (marking the global minimum on the plot). That game’s also noteworthy for that stupid Claude Giroux goal (you’ll know the one when you see it). Then on 2/7 vs the Sharks, Murray’s 15.4% CF accelerates a drop that seems prolonged thanks to injury time off. If further growth helps to remove these lows points, the overall trend should improve in future years.
Another way to consider Murray’s play is to consider season-long progression. Remembering to consider that team-wide improvement, Murray’s 1st half featured a CF% of 50%. Over the second half? An impressive 53.5%. I’d like to believe at least some of that improvement came from Murray’s growth or a response to coaching, but it’s hard to say right now.
Looking Across the League
Murray’s place in the NHL overall is also worth noting. Among all d-men with 62 or more games 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 the d-man’s level). Ryan Murray is a rookie, and some metrics suggest he’s performing at a 1st paring level. We have to remember (again) that he’s not facing top competition and he played with Wiz, but that’s a pretty great start.
And how about Murray’s scoring? The Blue Jacket fairs admirably here too. Post-lockout, Murray is 35th out of 87 rookie d-men in points per game (via Hockey Reference, 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. This isn’t an overwhelming offensive output, but Murray appears at or slightly above average compared to other rookie blueliners.
What Comes Next?
We’ve learned that Ryan Murray fared well in shot-based possession metrics last year, potentially worth considering as a top-tier CF% producer. He also supplied a good-not-great offensive output for the Jackets, and was simply fun to follow on the ice. All of this as a rookie. I’d say that’s a strong start to an NHL career.
The hope, of course, is that Murray continues to grow (remember, 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 paring 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 leaves this tantalizing suggestion about play vs Sidney Crosby from Hockey Analysis.
— Nick Biss (@nickjbiss) June 20, 2014
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.