As head coach of the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers and the Canadian National Junior team, Steve Spott has seen his fair share of talented young hockey players. So when the 44-year-old claims that a particular kid has “world-class ability,” you know he’s referencing someone special.
And that’s exactly how he perceives defenseman Ryan Murphy, a 3-year veteran in Kitchener and former first round pick in the NHL Draft.
In an interview on Tuesday, Spott went as far as to say that Murphy “should become a point-per-game player” in the National Hockey League. To put that in perspective, Erik Karlsson—universally considered as the best offensive D-man in the world—managed 78 points in 81 games last season.
No pressure, Ryan.
“I don’t think there are many players out there like him,” Spott said of the budding prospect. “He’s got so much potential.”
Murphy, 19, was selected 12th overall by the Carolina Hurricanes in 2011 and has since become a central figure in the organization’s long-term plans.
Considered the most offensively gifted rearguard in his draft class, his explosiveness and scoring touch give Murphy a ceiling high enough to reach the lofty expectations bestowed upon him. And while Murphy’s physical skills cannot be understated, Spott believes it’s his mental game that sets the 5’11” defenseman apart.
“What separates him is his hockey sense,” Spott said. “He sees things coming at him a lot quicker than other players do.”
That hockey sense matched with elite skating, good puck handling and a wicked shot have led to some pretty remarkable numbers for Murphy—numbers that many forwards could only dream of producing.
The Aurora, Ontario native has averaged 1.9 points per game over the last two years with the Rangers, notching 79 and 54 points in 2010-11 and 2011-12, respectively. Says his coach, “he’s is almost like a fourth forward out there.”
Murphy’s statistics are certainly impressive, but the NHL is a substantial step up from the junior ranks. For that kind of production to translate to the pros, Spott believes that Murphy needs to shape his game similar to Karlsson’s.
“Look at Karlsson in Ottawa; that’s the player he’s going to have to model himself off of,” Spott said. “Ryan’s going to have to take advantage of the opportunities he gets offensively the way Erik does, both on the power-play and at even strength.”
But despite all the talk of Murphy’s offensive prowess, scouts have constantly questioned his defensive abilities. Many puck-moving blueliners are victims of such criticism in their teenage years, but Spott doesn’t think this will be a problem for Murphy moving forward.
“His defensive game is underrated,” he said. “I think that’s going to be the gel for Ryan. It’s not a matter that he can’t do it—it’s a buy-in. He needs to buy into Carolina’s system.
“But we’ve had no issues with him. For me, it’s all there.”
His coach’s assurance notwithstanding, these worries won’t be put to rest until Murphy proves he can handle the defensive workload in the NHL. And once Murphy makes it to Carolina, it will be up to the Canes’ brass to help him adjust.
“Kirk (Muller) is going to have to trust him when he puts him out there on the ice,” Spott said. “Kirk will know what Ryan can do offensively, but he’s going to have to trust him defensively as well.”
As the new season approaches, Murphy will garner a lot of attention in local and national circles as he attempts to earn a full-time role in the NHL. Spott believes that he has the skills necessary to make the jump—it’ll just be a matter of whether or not he’s strong enough.
“The selfish side of me hopes (he won’t go to Carolina),” said the Kitchener bench boss. “But the only thing holding him back is his strength. Going to training camp and going head to head with the likes of the Staals will be a good test for him.”
Once Murphy arrives in Raleigh, he’ll have a familiar face to guide him along the way. Star forward and 2010 Calder Trophy winner Jeff Skinner played alongside Murphy with the Rangers during the 2009-10 season, and the two know each other well. According to Spott, they were more than just teammates in Kitchener–they were great friends as well.
“Jeff and Ryan were really close,” he said. “Any time you have elite players like that, they want to do well with each other.
“There’s good chemistry with the two of them. Thinking about having them together on the man advantage with Murphy on the point…they can be a deadly combo.”
Skinner, now a franchise cornerstone, was able to find immediate success in the NHL after several years of Spott’s tutelage.
Given the high praise the coach has for Murphy, don’t be surprised if the young defenseman follows suit.