The Edmonton Oilers opened up the month of September with news of a signing, bringing on Stanley Cup Champion Ryan Murray to bolster the defence corps. Let’s see what Murray brings to the table and what this means for the Oilers.
New Oiler Murray’s contract sees a one-year deal clocking in with a cap hit of $750K. The consensus opinion on new Murray is that he is a cerebral and understated defensive player. After being a potential Oilers selection at first overall more than a decade ago in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft there are no doubt Oilers fans who have long anticipated his joining the team.
Now, at 28 years old, the expectations are quite different from what once might have been for the left-handed defender, but the one-year, league-minimum deal comes with little to no risk or downside.
Murray’s on-ice style and role
Murray’s story has been a disjointed one of late, joining his fourth team in four years: he first ended his time with the Columbus Blue Jackets by being traded to the New Jersey Devils, then signed a one-year deal and ultimately won the Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche, and now he’s landed in Edmonton.
In each stop, he’s seen his results and role diminish, waning from being thought of as a potential top-four option to the depth role he holds now.
Though his defensive prowess is both consistent and notable, his modest offensive numbers—mostly in the form of assists—have dried up. This isn’t surprising given Murray’s production relies on his moving the puck up the ice to attackers, and playing in a smaller and more defensive role with bottom-six forwards would naturally diminish such rates as assists per 60 minutes, for example.
Murray has also dealt with injuries more and more often—his absences from the lineup leaving the window open for younger options on the rebuilding Devils, or deadline acquisitions on the Cup-winning Avalanche.
With each subsequent team less beholden to his being a core piece it should not be too alarming that teams have been quick to try others in his place. Of course, competition for the lower spots in any lineup is more contested, with more players having a realistic shot at viably contributing in such a role.
This is likely a similar role that the Oilers have in mind for Murray. He’s capable of being an adequate third pairing defensive defender who plays on the penalty kill, but he will need to form chemistry and synergy with one of the Oilers right shot defenders to ward off the internal competition around him.
Murray’s effect on Edmonton’s depth chart
Most notably is Philip Broberg, who’s ascension into an NHL role seems imminent. It is a big ask for a rookie, but it might be fair to say that at this point the Oilers path to true contention involves Broberg earnestly outperforming Kulak, or more precisely thriving in top-four minutes.
Ultimately Broberg’s long-term outlook is more important to prioritize than his present, so fans shouldn’t be too discouraged should he start this season in the AHL once again. We shall see if Broberg’s time is now, but Murray’s signing gives the Oilers flexibility to make the right long-term decision instead of throwing Broberg out there before he is ready.
Elsewhere, a pair of slightly older prospects see their paths to the NHL grow steeper. First, Markus Niemelainen, who saw some action for the Oilers last season. The Finn is famously physical, to a degree that is not seen much throughout the rest of the Oilers blueline. He is a good skater and is able to hold his own somewhat against the rush, which will likely be the biggest factor in his long-term NHL viability.
In a vacuum, Niemelainen might have less upside than his competition, but within the context of the blueline as a whole his presence might be appreciated. Into his mid 20s, the time is now (the next season or two), for Niemelainen to continue building his NHL resume, as without experience he’ll be less likely to earn subsequent contracts and opportunities.
Dmitri Samorukov is the final left-handed defender largely affected by the Murray signing. Stylistically he brings some similar elements to the ice as Murray and Niemelainen do. It won’t be his AHL point totals that earn him a promotion though.
Last year Samorukov suffered a broken jaw right before training camp, putting him behind the pace in any attempt to make the team out of the gate. Luckily for Samorukov, coaches Dave Manson and Jay Woodcroft are familiar with his game. Though the same could be said for both Broberg and Niemelainen, it doesn’t hurt Samorukov’s chances that there is some familiarity. It’s quite possible that Samorukov plays in the AHL for another season, and at this point his potential as an NHLer is becoming more unlikely, though still possible.
For the time being the spot that these defenders are pushing for is presumably one on a pairing with Tyson Barrie, or perhaps to less of an extent Evan Bouchard. We saw last season that Barrie certainly appreciates a defensive presence alongside, but it was also apparent that a certain degree of size and strength was essential.
Pairings with Barrie and smaller defenders such as William Lagesson and Kris Russell had a difficult time breaking up opponents’ cycles, often getting hemmed into their own zone. In this respect Murray might be more capable than Lagesson or Russell were, but the trio of Broberg, Niemelainen, and Samorukov all offer more in the department of physicality. This might put Murray at a disadvantage for the spot beside Barrie.
That said, Kulak might well reprise his pairing with Barrie, after all the two showed great chemistry together. In such a case Murray might be at a stylistic advantage alongside the bigger but more dynamic Bouchard. This is likely the most probable way that Murray can find his way onto the opening night lineup, chemistry and synergy with Bouchard.
Of course, there are bound to be injuries, and Murray’s experience and age make him a more appropriate rotational defender than his competition, who are younger and should be prioritizing the playing of regular minutes. It is in the realm of possibility that we see all the defenders discussed here suit up for the Oilers at some point this season.
A smart signing
In all this is a good signing for the Oilers, adding bona fide NHL depth for the lowest possible cost. We saw the blueline, and the team’s defensive structure as a whole, improve with the coaching change last season, as the staff was able to better support and get more out of the group. In their handling of this task they have earned some trust in being able to deploy a blueline to their individual strengths, sometimes involving seven defencemen. Murray represents a useful piece for Woodcroft to weave into the group to taste.
Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire