If you were to ask anyone who the Carolina Hurricanes top prospect is right now, the unanimous answer would likely be defenseman Ryan Murphy. Sure, you may have a few people say either Jeff Skinner or Justin Faulk but it is hard to call either a "prospect" right now since they both playing significant roles on the NHL club while Murphy is still unproven. The former 2011 first round selection has yet to play an NHL game but Carolina fans have gotten the chance to see him in action numerous times and always seem to be impressed when they watch him. The fans weren't the only ones who have been impressed with him, though. Murphy's performance at the Traverse City Tournament and in training camp also caught the eyes of the Carolina front office as they quickly signed him to a three-year entry level deal and kept him on the NHL roster to begin the season.
Despite that, Murphy watched the first three regular season games from the press box and was quickly sent back to Kitchener, which was probably the right move given the high number of defensemen the Hurricanes were carrying on the roster at the time. Murphy is going to have his chance to make the team again this year since the Carolina defense is going to need all the help they can get but he might be better off spending another year in Kitchener. Why? Because at only 19 years old, Murphy is probably only a third pairing defenseman right now and the Canes won't be getting max value out of his ELC if they use him in that role. Plus, the Canes have a lot of offensive-minded defensemen already looking to make the team and offense is at least 70% of Murphy's game.
That isn't an exaggeration. Murphy is a player with some incredibly offensive gifts as he has put up huge numbers from the blue-line during his time with the Kitchener Rangers. He was more than a point-per-game player the last two seasons and was second on the Rangers in goals in the 2010-11 season with 26, trailing only Gabriel Landeskog. His skating and puck-handling skills make him a very dangerous offensive defenseman and he has certainly proven that during his time in Kitchener. Now the question is can Murphy translate this success to the NHL and how long will it take him to get there?
The Hurricanes seem to think Murphy is going to be ready within the next year, so we may get to see what he is all about very soon. One thing we know about him is that he is a great offensive talent and has a high-risk, high-reward style of play. We can talk for hours about how he needs to "work on his game in his own zone" and be more of an all-around player but that is going to take a bit of time. What makes Murphy such a great player are his offensive skills and he has been used to playing this certain style for awhile now. He is going to make mistakes (i.e. committ turnovers, get caught deep, make mistakes in coverage, etc.) and fans are going to have to deal with that because Murphy is young and has an aggressive approach to the game. Murphy may never become the ideal two-way defenseman that everyone loves to have, but what he can do is learn to make better decisions with the puck and be a little less careless in his own zone. These are skills that Murphy can improve on as he gets older and all the Hurricanes can do is ease him into the NHL as he adjusts to the NHL.
Murphy can learn to be more responsible but his size is something that might stand in his way of being a top defenseman at the next level. He stands at a little under six feet tall and weighs around 160-170 lbs., which is pretty small for an NHL defenseman. Murphy can always get bigger since he isn't even 20 years old yet, but he is still under-sized and that could end up being a problem soon. That isn't to say that smaller players can't succeed, but this along with his lack of physical play might limit the ways that Carolina can utilize him. Let's just say that he could end up more like Kris Russell instead of Kris Letang if his size really becomes an issue. It's also worth mentioning that he has suffered a concussion within the last year.
That being said, Murphy is still a very special talent and could develop into a fantastic player if the Hurricanes handle him the right way. Whether or not this means he should be in the NHL next year will depend on how he looks come training camp and what the front office thinks of him. Murphy is coming off a bit of a tough season by his standards, a large part of that is due to the concussion he sustained early in the year but he was still very effective when healthy and had a good showing in the OHL playoffs with 22 points in 20 games.
It is easy to make the argument that Murphy has nothing to gain by playing another year in juniors but when you look at the overall picture, it makes a little more sense. Murphy is still a year away from AHL eligibility so the Canes will have Murphy on the big club for the entire year if they decide to keep him, and he likely won't get above the third pairing in his rookie season. If the Hurricanes want to get the most out of Murphy's ELC years, then using him in a third-pairing role with limited ice time on an already crowded defense corps probably isn't the best way to go. Factor in the concussion and sending him back to junior doesn't seem like the worst decision in the world unless he blows people away in training camp (if there is one).
The fans and the front office are probably excited to see this kid contribute to the NHL but I think it's going to take some time before Murphy is fully ready. I think he will have a good career but, as I mentioned earlier, Murphy is going to make some mistakes along the way and it's probably best to stay patient with him for now. My personal expectations for Murphy next season are somewhat low but I can guarantee you that the bar will be raised in a year or two.