Team Canada added a painful memory to its participation in the 2013 International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Junior Hockey Championship (WJHC) tournament, suffering a 6-5 overtime loss to Team Russia in Ufa, Russia on Saturday.
Carolina Hurricanes prospect Ryan Murphy saw the end of it, up close, as he was the last player to challenge Valeri Nichushkin before he rounded the faceoff circle to goaltender Malcolm Subban’s left, before tucking the puck past the netminder to claim the bronze medal.
The loss left Team Canada finishing the tournament without a medal for the first time in 15 years, and Murphy with a heartbreaking end to his first and only WJHC competition after scoring a goal and two assists in the losing effort.
However, the end of that journey will only lead him onto his next one - towards the National Hockey League with the Hurricanes.
As the announcement was made on Sunday that the National Hockey League (NHL) and the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) had come to a tentative understanding on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), the news for Murphy and other prospects around the league means that they may get the opportunity to prove themselves at the next level sooner than expected.
Under the microscope
Murphy’s selection to Team Canada came in the final hour, and came after being left off the squad for the past two years as a final cut.
Even as a first round NHL draft pick (12th overall) for the Hurricanes in 2011, some questioned Murphy earning a spot on the Canadian roster.
Some openly criticized that it came as a result of favoritism shown by Team Canada coach Steve Spott, his coach in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) with the Kitchener Rangers.
It seems that since the day he was drafted, many have wondered much about him, and what a future in professional hockey will present for the young rearguard.
According to Hurricanes Vice President for Hockey Operations Ron Francis, the development of a young NHL defenseman usually takes longer than that of a forward.
“Absolutely, no question,” he said.
“It’s a lot tougher for a D to step into this league and to develop.”
Francis was quick to point out that expectations for young and talented players must be tempered with a focus on developing them at the right pace.
“You look at these kids that are 18 and 19 (years old), and you say ‘Okay, how’s he going to be at 22, 23, 24?’ That’s a tough position – there’s a lot of things you need to learn,” said Francis.
A special player
Since he was drafted, everyone from Hurricanes President and General Manager Jim Rutherford on down through the organization have tabbed Murphy as a ‘special player’.
Even Canada’s most vociferous supporter of Murphy, former NHL coach Don Cherry, has compared his skating and stickhandling abilities at his age to those of one of his former players, Hall of Famer Bobby Orr.
Murphy is not big, not overly defensive in his play, but possesses the ability to carry the puck from end to end and to distribute the puck or put it in the net – 194 points (47 goals, 147 assists) in 205 games in the OHL to date, overwhelmingly proves that.
Even during his first full training camp in Carolina last season, Murphy made a case for the organization to keep him around until the maximum time allowable before sending him back to Kitchener.
Risk, reward style of play
According to Rangers radio anlyst Mike Farwell - who knows Murphy well and understands him probably as much as Spott does – Murphy is the real deal.
“He holds more positives to help on the offense than vice-versa,” Farwell said.
“This guy brings a unique set of skills to the ice and is second to none – when you talk of his skating and stickhandling.”
As much as Murphy’s talents with the puck will lead his path to becoming an effective special team’s player, his play without it is what many have been criticizing him on.
“Yes he will always prove himself offensively first, but he’s actually strong in his end – extremely smart,” Farwell continued.
“He plays 33-35 minutes per game, but is underrated defensively in his own end. He will turn any doubters into believers.”
Being a leader
Playing in his fourth season with Kitchener, Murphy is the team’s captain, a responsibility that has taken him a while to adjust to according Farwell.
“He’s had a bit of down year. Ryan Murphy wasn’t Ryan Murphy (early on). Biggest thing was him assuming the captaincy. Ryan and I had talked about it. He feels a certain responsibility – he tries to do too much on the ice. Playing in a ‘hockey mad’ market (in Kitchener), he has felt the pressure to be successful.”
Farwell’s comments are entirely understandable considering the footsteps that Murphy is following in the city located southwest of Toronto.
Former Rangers teammate and Hurricanes forward, Jeff Skinner, came into the NHL and captured the attention of everyone in Raleigh and around the league and secured the Calder Trophy as the league’s Rookie of the Year in 2011.
Another former teammate of Murphy’s and captain of the Rangers, Gabriel Landeskog, made his debut in the NHL with the Colorado Avalanche an impressive one as well - winning the 2012 Calder trophy and being awarded the captaincy of the team in September - becoming the youngest in league history, at 19 years old, to assume such a role.
Thus, if Murphy feels pressure to succeed in Kitchener and beyond, those are a couple of reasons why.
However, the advantage that many young players like Murphy have is to look up to those who came before them, and to heed their advice, while continuing to work hard to become a better player.
A few pointers from above
Though Hurricanes captain Eric Staal didn’t play for Team Canada at the WJHC, he knows about playing and winning in international competition.
Staal's a member of the ‘Triple Gold’ club: winning a Stanley Cup with the Hurricanes in 2006, a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2007 World Championships, and being part of the famed 2010 Canadian team that won Olympic gold in 2010.
When he heard of Murphy’s ascent to the captaincy in Kitchener, he could relate and offered some advice.
“I think anytime that you’re on any team when you’re in a leadership role, you’re looked in other responsibilities, besides focusing individually,” Staal said.
“You have to hold other people accountable but you also have to make sure you’re performing. That involves practices, games – I think you learn that at that level – that’s how you get to the next level. Now that he’s in that role down there, I think he can work at that and know that you have to perform in practices and games to ensure you make that next step."
From one WJHC vet to another
Another player in the Hurricanes organization who has firsthand international playing experience, is two-time WJHC gold medalist Zach Boychuk, currently a forward with the Hurricanes affiliate club, the Charlotte Checkers.
Boychuk earned his two medals in 2008 and 2009 and provided some words of wisdom for Murphy as a fellow member of the organization.
“I was really pulling for Murph and Team Canada,” Boychuk said after practice on Saturday at PNC Arena.
“You look at Murphy’s game today – a nice goal and couple of assists. The end, not winning the game which is a little disappointing - but for him - he’s such a talented player with such great offensive skills. He worked his way up during that whole tournament, to that first power play unit, and showed he could quarterback a pretty incredible power play.”
What’s the next step for the young blueliner according to Boychuk?
“I would say, just take that disappointment and go back to Kitchener or when the season starts, come up here and play your best,” Boychuk continued.
“I think a little bit of a letdown can sometimes bring the best out of you and for him, he’s got a bright future ahead of him, I think he’s going to be a great player for the Hurricanes for a time to come.”
Getting the chance
With a new NHL season approaching, Murphy may well get the opportunity to show Hurricanes management what being a captain and playing on the world stage has taught him in working towards becoming a full-fledged professional.
“For us, the key is just being patient with the young guys, Ryan included, letting them develop and working with them until we feel they’re ready,” Francis said.
There’s no doubt that the Hurricanes would like him see Murphy make positive strides at the next level and will follow their process to get him there.
“We’re very pleased at the talents he possesses, and we think he’s got a bright future. At the same token, we’re going to work with him, develop him, and not rush him into a situation that affects his development or confidence going forward.”