Ryan Murphy came into the OHL with very little fanfare.
He was the third overall pick; notable in this instance because he was the only high draft pick that the Kitchener Rangers had in a decade. Taken ahead of him were players who now aren't even in the conversation when talk of Murphy's NHL Draft position comes up.
Daniel Catenacci, Murphy's teammate in minor hockey, is quietly compiling a solid season with the Soo Greyhounds that will likely end with him being drafted at the top of the second round in June. He was drafted into the OHL No. 1 Overall that year. Alan Quine was taken second. His most notable OHL achievement so far has been being traded for Ryan Spooner.
Murphy's legend started last year during the playoffs. His numbers during the regular season were solid but not spectacular for a rookie defender. He racked up six goals and 33 assists in 62 games. He was regularly slotted in as the fourth defenseman on the Kitchener depth chart behind captain Dan Kelly, Columbus top prospect John Moore and either Patrik Andersson or Jonathan Jasper. In the playoffs, Murphy took over. Paired with John Moore, Murphy racked up five goals and 12 assists for 17 points in 20 games. His points-per-game percentage went from just over 0.5 to 0.85.
His playoff performances, including exhilarating end-to-end rushes and dazzling spectacles of stickhandling, led Hockey Night in Canada's Don Cherry to highlight Murphy as a contender for first overall in the NHL's 2011 Draft.
Murphy stepped up his play going into this season. Marked as Kitchener's top defender after last year's playoff, Murphy was invited to Canada's Under-18 summer camp. He was cut from a team that eventually went on to win gold. The criticism was one he'd heard before: His offence was there but his defensive coverage was lacking. Hockey Canada had sent Murphy into the season with something to prove.
In 24 games this season, Murphy has matched last year's point totals. With 13 goals and 26 assists for 39 points, his points-per-game percentage has gone up from his playoff high of 0.85 to just north of 1.6. Murphy finished last season as a minus-three and is thus far a plus-five on Kitchener's blue line, which is most certainly an answer to some of his critics who challenged his defensive abilities.
But how does Murphy stack up against the other invitees on Canada's prospective blue line?
One thing needs to be made clear: If Murphy is brought along, it will be to add a dynamic to the power play. Much the same reason that Pat Quinn brought Ryan Ellis along to the '09 Tournament in Ottawa. So, comparing Murphy to defenders selected primarily for their defense such as Spokane's Jared Cowen or Kingston's Erik Gudbranson is to miss the point.
Really, Murphy is competing with a much smaller group comprised of himself, Windsor's Ryan Ellis, Everett's Ryan Murray (whose inclusion, along with Murphy's, is Hockey Canada's attempt at an Abbot and Costello routine), Oshawa's Calvin de Haan and Kelowna's Tyson Barrie.
Ellis and de Haan have an immediate advantage over the other three because they are returnees from last year's team. The two play very different styles. Calvin de Haan is a poised passer who's more defensively useful than Ellis because of his size and skating ability but possesses a far lesser offensive arsenal. Ellis is a Brian Rafalski-type power-play quarterback who relies on his hockey sense to run the man advantage and can unleash a bomb from the point.
Both will likely be included on the team. This narrows the likely competition down to Murphy, Murray and Barrie for the last spot (assuming Canada takes seven defensemen).
Barrie is the reigning WHL Defenseman of the Year, but stylistically he's a very similar player both in terms of size and method to Ellis. The advantage that Barrie has with Dave Cameron coaching the team is that, at this moment, he's viewed as being a more mature and more polished defensive presence than either Murphy or Murray.
Murray was the captain of Canada's U-18 team at this summer's Ivan Hlinka Tournament. While his plus-minus is better than Barrie's or Murphy's, he also plays in a highly constrictive defensive system in Everett, which may be inflating that number.
Murray has struggled to produce offensive numbers this season and because the seventh spot is usually reserved for power-play help, Murray's lack of numbers may prove troubling, particularly if his struggles continue at camp.
As for Murphy, his numbers and style speak well for him. He's less of a pure passer than Ellis, Barrie or de Haan and more of a rushing offensive defenseman. Think of the difference between a Brian Rafalski and a Dan Boyle or Phil Housley. He's also outproduced every other defenseman going into camp in terms of offence.
If Canada elects to go with eight defensemen—as it did two years ago when it first brought Ellis along—Murphy will be the reason why. He adds a dynamic to the power play that the others do not but his style also lends to an easy conversion to wing if a forward were to go down with injury. That fact isn't necessarily true of either Barrie or Murray.