Playmaking defenseman Ryan Murphy has a renewed perspective since returning to North America.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
When Ryan Murphy was looking for a place to play this season, one destination stood out.
He saw the Detroit Red Wings as an organization on the rise and, if he was going to play in the American Hockey League, there was no better place to be than Grand Rapids.
“When I was figuring out where to play this year, I remembered playing the Griffins wherever I might have been,” he said. “They always have a heckuva team and they win and they win. It’s just a winning culture. I want to be in a winning culture and this is probably the best team in the minors if you want to experience that.
“Looking at the Detroit Red Wings, you see Steve Yzerman putting together a team just like he did in Tampa, where they have done something special by winning back-to-back Stanley Cups. I hope something special can happen here and I can be a big part of it.”
In his ninth full season as a professional, Murphy, 28, has a new perspective. For years, he struggled to secure his spot in the NHL, splitting season after season between the world’s top league and the minors, caught in a virtual netherworld where negativity can threaten to seep into the soul of any former first-round draft pick.
A year of playing in Russia helped set his psyche straight. Seeing friends enjoy the apex of success only strengthened his resolve.
“I want to win something before I’m done,” he said. “I’ve watched [as] two of my best friends have won Stanley Cups the past three years [St. Louis Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington and Barclay Goodrow of the Tampa Bay Lightning]. I’ve seen them come home for the summer and I’ve watched them celebrating and how life is good.
“I want that. Seeing them both do it, even though they had different rides to the NHL, only made it real for me and showed that it is possible. It’s been cool to see because they have been awesome supporters of mine. Every year they say ‘Next year is your year.’
“I want to go into the summer with a championship that I can celebrate with my friends and family just because I’ve seen them do it. I’ve seen how cool it is and how rewarding it can be. And I think this is the place where it can happen.”
The desire to win is nothing new for the Aurora, Ontario, native. Growing up north of Toronto, he took to hockey at a young age, his skills overshadowing his smaller size – a reality that was recognized by his minor hockey coach, Moe Catenacci, whose son Daniel was one of his close friends growing up.
Catenacci coached both boys in the York Simcoe Express Hockey Association for 10 years, from the time the boys were seven years old until they hit 16 and left for the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). He saw Murphy could be a special player if he maximized his offensive skills.
Having played 15 seasons in Europe, Catenacci believed that turning Murphy into a Euro-style blueliner presented his best chance at a future in professional hockey, because his size (5-11, 185 lbs.) was on the small side for NHL defensemen.
“I idolized Moe,” Murphy said. “He played one exhibition game for the St. Louis Blues, which I thought was so cool. He was the first guy to teach me the offensive side of the game as a defenseman. I was put on the back end by a coach named Dave Howie, who put all his good skaters on the defense.
“When I got to Moe, Moe started to tell me to go the other way when the puck started coming toward us to pick off passes and stuff. He developed my offensive side of the game. I didn’t start learning the defensive side until the NHL, to be honest.”
In the OHL, Murphy played four years for the Kitchener Rangers, where he was encouraged to pursue the same offensive mindset. “I played for Steve Spott, who preached the same thing,” Murphy said. “He let me play offense. He told me that defense was something I would learn later in life.”
While Murphy excelled at helping put the puck into the net, Spott kept guiding the Rangers to winning seasons until he left for the AHL’s Toronto Marlies and eventual assistant coaching positions in the NHL. During his draft year, Murphy tallied 26 goals, an impressive number by any measure for a defenseman.
That kind of success in junior hockey convinced the Carolina Hurricanes to take Murphy with the 12th overall pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
Over the next five seasons, Murphy struggled to establish himself as a regular in the NHL, bouncing between Carolina and the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers.
“I didn’t know how to handle playing in the minors,” he now admits. “At first, I thought I was done. I was the 12th overall pick and now I was in the minors. What’s going on? It was the first adversity I faced.”
Disappointment, frustration and despair are emotions that have faced many high draft picks who find themselves in the minor leagues.
“It took me years, probably up until the time I went to Europe, to realize that you’ve got to be a professional and you’ve got to do the little things. You can’t just rely on your God-given talent,” he said. “There are so many little things that you have to do to become an everyday NHLer.”
It didn’t help his cause that there were five different head coaches between Carolina and Charlotte during his time in the organization.
“We had so many changes with coaches and management that it was tough to find my way as a young guy, especially because I was trying to establish myself as an NHL player. For the most part all of my coaches were great, but you’re learning from all these different coaches and it’s not as easy as it sounds.”
One thrill that will be forever etched in his mind is his first NHL goal, which he scored at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto two weeks into his first full season as a pro in 2013.
“I’m almost embarrassed to say that it’s the highlight of my career,” he said. “I was still young to the point where family members are still surprised that you made it. We had a partial breakaway and I missed the net but I looped back around and delivered a one-timer for a power-play goal.
“I had about 50 people in the crowd, including my parents with my older brother and younger sister. My grandparents were in the house, plus other extended family and friends. It was awesome. It’s a feeling I want to experience again.”
Even so, those kinds of moments were few and far between for Murphy. He eventually decided he needed a change of scenery. “It was just time,” he said. “I didn’t feel like my career was going in the right direction. I wanted out of Carolina because I wanted a fresh start somewhere.”
Murphy thought he had his new shot when Carolina included him in a three-player deal with an exchange of draft picks to Calgary during the summer of 2017, but he wasn’t a member of the Flames for even 24 hours. Calgary announced it would be buying out his 2017-18 salary.
“My agent was telling me that the Flames were interested and that Calgary was a good spot for me,” he recalled. “I was talking with my buddies and celebrating when I got another call about an hour and a half later saying that I was being bought out. I was confused. To this day, I still don’t know why. It was bizarre. To not be even given a chance was strange, but everything happens for a reason.”
He ultimately signed a one-year deal with Minnesota and started the 2017-18 season with the AHL’s Iowa Wild. When defenseman Jared Spurgeon was sidelined by a partial tear of his hamstring, Murphy was recalled for another stab at the NHL.
“I came into a top-four role and [head coach] Bruce Boudreau said ‘You play well, roll with it’ – no pressure but play well. It was probably the most solid hockey I played in my NHL career. I was averaging about 20 minutes per game and I thought that I had established myself there.”
Playing on the second defensive pairing in Minnesota, Murphy recorded two goals and three assists while being a plus-eight in 21 games.
So Murphy was surprised when the Wild didn’t issue a qualifying offer the following summer. Instead, the team signed him to a one-year, two-way contract for the league minimum. “I ended up taking a pay cut, so it was clear that I wasn’t going to be their guy. That was frustrating. The coaches were great and I made some good friendships, but for whatever reason, things didn’t work out.”
In January 2019, Minnesota traded Murphy to New Jersey for Binghamton defenseman Michael Kapla. “I got a call that San Jose had put in a trade offer for me and Minnesota was nice enough to say that if I wanted out, they would do it,” he said. “San Jose was where my old coach from juniors [Steve Spott] was now, so I thought about it and said let’s do this.
“I thought this could be a good thing, so I said let’s pack up and get out of here. Then I saw I was going to New Jersey/Binghamton in a trade. I was shocked.
“Those were some dark days. We didn’t have a good team in Binghamton. I did get to go up for one game with the Devils and play against Carolina. We won 3-2 and I had the assist on the game’s first goal, but I got sent back down the next day and that was it for New Jersey. It was a tough experience.
“I thought I was done. I thought I was finished with hockey. You get into your head when you can feel the door closing. That summer the phone was not ringing.”
Murphy eventually got a job offer from Slava Butsayev, the former Griffins forward (1999-2001) who was the head coach of Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik in the KHL. Nizhnekamsk is a city in the Republic of Tatarstan, a two-hour flight east of Moscow in the middle of Russia.
“I got a call that they were offering me a contract for decent money and that I essentially needed to let them know,” he said. “I didn’t know much about the KHL, but I was told that it was not the best place in the world or the most glamorous team, so I knew that going in.
“My way of looking at it was that I was going to go to Russia, I’d stick to myself and focus only on hockey. I wanted to find the offensive confidence that I had lost over the previous seven years from being beaten down by almost every coach along the way.”
Murphy quickly found that playing in Russia would require more than a little adjustment.
“Everything’s a little different over there,” Murphy said. “We had a translator who would translate what we needed to know, but it was tough. Whenever Butsayev was on the board describing the drills, you had to pay attention because most of the time the translator was kind of wrong about what we were supposed to do. He was a great guy but not the best translator.
“Butsayev spoke English but he didn’t really speak it to the North American guys, so there was a big language barrier. We only had a couple of Russian players who spoke any English and they didn’t go out of their way to speak to us. You definitely felt isolated at the time.”
As an assistant captain, Murphy felt a sense of responsibility.
“It was tough because we didn’t have the best team in the world. We had a lot of young Russians trying to make their way in the KHL and when you’re going up against the top teams every night, it was a little overwhelming. We were playing in our zone a lot and getting stomped on.
“As the year went along, I found little ways to individually create offense. And that’s what I used to be really good at – creating offense. Towards the end, I felt like I was catching my stride and we started winning games.”
In retrospect, Murphy believes playing in the KHL was almost the best thing that could have happened for his career.
“Going to Russia, I got so humbled,” he said. “There was a McDonald’s but there wasn’t much to do. On off days, you could fly to Moscow or drive to Kazan. In the sense of my career, it was what I needed. I started to appreciate stuff in North America better where I don’t care where I am now. I just want to play in North America in front of my friends and family.”
With the pandemic pushing the hockey season into limbo, Murphy wasn’t sure where he would be headed next.
“I had a decent season in the KHL, but not enough to open the eyes of people from the big clubs in Russia and not enough to earn an NHL contract,” he said. “I was still a little lost, but I knew I didn’t want to give up on the NHL. I knew I wanted to play in North America again.”
He approached his old coach, Steve Spott, who had become an assistant coach with the Vegas Golden Knights.
“They put an AHL deal on the table and I didn’t think twice and took it,” he said. “With our league being pushed back by the pandemic, I thought my best chance at hitting the ground running was to be ready for camp as much as I could.”
Murphy began last season with Minsk Dynamo of the KHL. “Belarus was a better experience because we had a North American coach, Craig Woodcroft, who was awesome,” he said. “The city of Minsk was beautiful, we had a good team and I knew a lot of guys. I needed to go there to be able to take another stab at playing here.”
He played 12 games in Belarus before opening the season with the Henderson Silver Knights. In 37 games, he led all AHL defensemen with 22 assists and 27 points. He led the league with 13 power-play assists and ranked second with 14 power-play points. He began his eighth AHL season as an assistant captain but was promoted to captain late in the season after Patrick Brown was recalled by Vegas.
In recognition of his play, Murphy won the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s outstanding defenseman for the 2020-21 season, as voted by coaches, players, and media members in each of the league’s active member cities.
“My European experience helped my mindset,” he said. “My goal ever since I came back from Russia is to establish myself and not be a bubble guy. I just want to play a consistent role for a hockey team and not be disposable. I want to be leaned on.”
So life is good. Murphy, who is engaged to get married next June to his grade-school sweetheart, is happy to be playing hockey in Grand Rapids, where a winning culture has long been in place and veteran leadership is seen as being integral to the development of future Detroit Red Wings players.
“It starts at the top with Brian Lashoff,” Murphy said. “He’s not much older but I look up to him. The guy has been around forever and he’s been on the same team the whole time and that’s an achievement, to have one organization want you that many years. It’s a compliment to him.”
Murphy thinks this year’s team has the makings of being special.
“When you look up and down the lineup, we have such a good mix of young and old, with great goaltending, and the coaching staff is great. They’re approachable and you can talk to them,” he said. “Of course, you’d like to start your season by winning 10 games in a row, but we’ve had a lot of bright spots in our games. We haven’t even scratched the surface in terms of what this team is capable of doing.
“For so many years, my life has been a story of up and down, up and down, up and down. It takes its toll. But looking back now, I consider myself fortunate because I have met so many people and I have learned so many things from so many different coaches.
“I want to win something before I’m done. When I look at our team here, I’m excited.”