Former Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Douglas Murray checks Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand.
It was a pretty nonsensical statement, essentially something along the lines of: “We want to win right now, but only with older, slower players getting us there.” But it was a statement nonetheless.
Okay, officially the statement, direct from the press release on the Habs’ website via Marc Bergevin, was: “Douglas Murray is an experienced defenceman with good size and is a seasoned veteran. He will bring a physical dimension to our team and is a significant addition to our group of defencemen.”
At 6’3”, 245 pounds, Murray definitely is undeniably a significant addition to the Habs, but mainly "significant" in the most literal sense of the word—substantial for another word. Weighty?
He’s big; that's what I’m saying. But is bigger better in this particular case?
Here are the pros and cons of the Canadiens’ deal with Murray.
Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin.
Prior to signing Murray, the Habs had over $3 million in salary cap wiggle room. Now, according to capgeek.com, they have $1.89 million left over.
That’s chump change over the course of an entire 82-game NHL season, especially when one considers $1.5 million apparently buys you a by-most-accounts over-the-hill defenseman.
Needless to say, in spite of how much the Pittsburgh Penguins were able to acquire at the trade deadline last year with limited cap space, $2 million doesn’t get you all that far. Look to the exact same Pens during the playoffs as proof of that.
Hell, look to Murray, who contributed to the Pens’ playoff futility.
Of course, technically speaking, that amount of space will go up. It applies to Montreal’s current roster, which now consists of 24 players, one more than the league 23-man maximum.
Since captain Brian Gionta and defenseman Alexei Emelin are injured right now, Montreal technically only has 22 players on its roster, and the team’s salary cap space will be adjusted accordingly to account for that. Once both return, there will be at least one odd man out, though.
Even with just 22 men on the team’s active roster, the signing means someone will still be losing a regular spot up until that point, destined for the press box instead. One thing that is for certain is it won’t be Murray.
Montreal Canadiens defenseman Alexei Emelin hits Carolina Hurricane Eric Staal.
Murray was clearly brought in to help mitigate the loss of Emelin for the season’s first few months.
Out with an injured knee sustained in early April, Emelin will likely only be ready by the start of December, meaning the Habs would otherwise be without a key element to Montreal’s success in 2013 for almost a third of 2013-14. That element, of course, is Emelin’s physicality and his team-leading 110 hits in 38 games.
It’s readily apparent just how badly the Habs need someone to pick up the pieces (or break opposing players into more pieces) in his absence; the next-closest Canadiens player in terms of hits was Erik Cole, who was traded to the Dallas Stars, with 101.
Think about that for a second.
Cole, a player who was dealt away just 19 games into the season for not contributing as much—for not playing as hard—as he could, displayed more physical intensity than 95 percent of the team. As such, it’s clear that the Habs needed to up the ante as far as hitting goes.
Brandon Prust had officially the second-highest total among Canadiens skaters with 87 in 38 games as well. The next-highest Canadiens defenseman was Francis Bouillon with 78 in 48 games.
Murray, meanwhile? Eighty-nine in 43 games.
It’s not all that impressive of an amount, all things considered, but it should help, especially with Murray widely considered one of the league’s hardest-hitting defensemen. Taking into consideration the fact that it’s illegal to hit someone without the puck and that the Habs are a puck-possession team, it’s not quantity but quality that matters.
Murray’s quality as a defenseman remains to be seen, though, especially relative to whose spot he will be taking. He instantly becomes the Habs’ biggest defenseman, with arguable exception to the 6’6” Jarred Tinordi, who will likely play out the year with the Hamilton Bulldogs as a result.
Montreal Canadiens defensemen Jarred Tinordi (right) and Nathan Beaulieu.
Before the signing, it was widely assumed that Jarred Tinordi would be getting a chance to prove himself during Emelin’s absence. He was even seen as potentially being able to stay on after Emelin’s return, at the expense of Francis Bouillon or Raphael Diaz.
For a defenseman not known for his offensive game, Murray relatively effectively just shot a whole lot of holes into that plan.
Montreal’s defensive corps now, in no particular order, consists of: P.K. Subban, Josh Gorges, Andrei Markov, Davis Drewiske, Diaz, Bouillon and Murray. It doesn’t take a mathematician to see something doesn’t fit. It doesn’t even take a first grader.
There are already seven defensemen (without Emelin) to fit into six spots. Forget Murray at this point. Let's talk about Drewiske, a reserve defenseman who was re-signed in June.
Even making the safe assumption that Tinordi, and fellow defensive prospect Nathan Beaulieu, place ahead of Drewiske on the team’s depth chart in the eyes of management, the latter has a one-way contract. Tinordi and Beaulieu don’t.
So, amazingly, a player who got in all five of Montreal’s playoff games last season (Tinordi) is now poised to be demoted in favor of a player who didn’t earn enough of the coaching staff’s confidence to even play in one (Drewiske).
Something is clearly amiss.
Now, Drewiske can obviously be waived or traded. Either one of those scenarios (being waived the more realistic of the two) leads to the undeniable conclusion that Montreal made at least one mistake re-signing him. Who’s to say, then, that signing Murray wasn’t another one?
Back to Murray vs. Tinordi, which is what this move by Bergevin essentially boils down.
After all, Bergevin wasn’t choosing Drewiske over Tinordi. That’s just how the logistics will inevitably work out. He was choosing the 33-year-old Swede over the 21-year-old rookie.
However, if the Habs value experience so much, it sends somewhat of a mixed message that they would pass on this opportunity to give Tinordi or Beaulieu some this coming season. They are key components of the team moving forward; one would think anyway.
In any case, after winning the Northeast Division last year, the Habs are clearly looking to make more of an impact this season. That in turn can only mean they’re looking to make more of an impact in the playoffs, ousted in just five games against the Ottawa Senators in the first round.
Clearly, Murray’s much more than a mere Swedish meathead.
He’s got a lot to offer, undeniably starting with his hitting ability. His eight years of experience fit in there somewhere, though, as do his six playoff appearances and 72 postseason games played.
In fact, those 72 games rank fourth on the Habs, behind Daniel Briere (108), Brian Gionta (95) and Travis Moen (73).
Looking at those names, though, consider this: Two of them have won a Stanley Cup (Gionta in 2002-03 and Moen in 2006-07) and had joined the Habs in 2009-10, but have not led the team to a championship in the four seasons since then.
That isn’t to say it was expected. I mean, it definitely would have been nice, but it illustrates a sad, but true point. Put simply, experience can be incredibly overrated, especially when the players attached to that experience have little else to offer.
Gionta, 34, while a leader by example, is banged up going on two years now, and hasn’t had a good offensive season since his first in Montreal. Moen, at just 31, is coming off one of the worst ones of his career and could already be wearing down.
Meanwhile, Briere’s concussions and injury issues in general have also been well-documented. While he’s a proven performer in the playoffs (109 career points), he’s also going to be 36, hasn’t been to the postseason since the season before last and the Philadelphia Flyers bought him out for a reason.
Murray, similarly, hasn’t been nearly as effective as he was when he was one of the league’s most feared defensemen circa 2010.
If he can rebound in a lesser role than he’s used to, this signing can pay off, at least in terms of the team’s outlook for 2013-14. It’s hard to dismiss the small joke he’s become, though, ironically making this deal not all that much of a laughing matter.
Montreal Canadiens defenseman Jarred Tinordi hits former Toronto Maple Leaf Mikhail Grabovski.
To be clear, Murray is far from a poor addition. At this stage of his career, he’s arguably an above-average, albeit slow-of-foot third-pairing defenseman who can undeniably help the Habs on the penalty kill.
It’s just the circumstances surrounding this deal that give pause—mainly the timing of it.
It almost points to panic on the part of the Habs, as if they knew from the get-go that they were going to replace Emelin through free agency, but decided to wait for the market to cool down before making their move.
Once one second-tier, physical, stay-at-home defenseman got signed, they pounced, perhaps overpaying slightly and bringing them closer to the $64.3 million salary cap ceiling than they would have liked in the process.
Granted, had they gone after Murray in early July, the Habs probably would have had to pay even more. However, had they not re-signed Drewiske, thereby creating an unnecessary logjam at defense, it wouldn’t have been an issue.
The signing essentially renders Drewiske obsolete—well, more obsolete, anyway.
Sure, the Habs may be planning for contingencies, preferring to keep Drewiske in the mix in case of further injuries rather than have to call up Tinordi or Beaulieu and give them limited minutes. However, if Tinordi or Beaulieu never get limited ice time, they’ll never earn first-pairing minutes.
Had the Habs gone this route without re-signing Drewiske, it would have been a different story, and Murray would have provided the Habs with a steady option on the blue line in Emelin’s absence and a mentor, of sorts, for Tinordi. Now, barring an(other) unexpected move, that isn’t likely to happen.
Seeing as Tinordi had already taken the first step toward staying on with Montreal by playing all five playoff games against Ottawa, it seems illogical for the Habs to want to go with someone in Murray who’s lost a step or two. Now, all the Habs did was arguably shoot themselves in the foot.