Injuries gutted what was supposed to be a promising year for Ryan Murray in 2014-15.
And he wasn't the only one; the Blue Jackets lost an unprecedented number of man games to injury a season ago and their hopes for taking another step forward were challenged before the season even began.
Murray was one of the players hit hardest, limited to only 12 games and never getting into a groove each time he returned. It was so frustrating that Murray didn't want to talk about it even after he was given a clean bill of health before this training camp, choosing instead to focus on what was ahead.
And anyone you ask about this young player will tell you: he's as smooth and intelligent as they come.
What you still have to remind yourself is that Murray is only 22 years old and this, really, is only his second full NHL season. He was joined in early January by another building block on the back end when the Blue Jackets traded for Seth Jones, and those two have been a consistent pairing in month-plus since the deal.
Thursday's contract extension for Murray - a two-year deal worth a total of $5.65 million - is smart betting by the Blue Jackets on your standard "bridge deal," the short-term contract often given to a player coming off his entry level agreement.
The Blue Jackets are betting on the player they've seen this season, one that's handled an increased level of responsibility and grown under coach John Tortorella. They're encouraged by what he is today but even more excited about what's to come, hopefully building a defense around two talented players like Murray and Jones.
"Ryan Murray is a talented, smart player who has been a very steady performer on our blue line and we are extremely happy to have this deal completed,” GM Jarmo Kekalainen said in a statement. “Ryan has earned more ice time, showed steady improvement and contributed in all situations for us throughout the season. We look forward to his continued growth and development with our club."
That continued growth and development - which will happen - is what makes the long-term picture look pretty good for Columbus.
Murray is a significant part of that picture, no doubt about it. He won't score 15 goals a season or blow you away offensively, but he's the type of player you build around and rely on for the next decade-plus.
Right now, Murray is third on the Blue Jackets in total ice at just under 23 minutes per game. He and Jones (another key RFA this summer) have grown into the top-pairing role under Tortorella and have earned the right to play the tough minutes.
Murray's play has improved since the Jones trade, and the underlying data suggests that being paired with Jones has been a big help to Murray, as well. A visualization via Puckalytics (and Buckeye State Hockey's Jeremy Crowe) that shows the shot attempts for, shot attempts against and goals for percentage when that pairing is on the ice:
In summary: when Murray and Jones are on the ice, the Blue Jackets attempt more shots than their opponents, they're allowing fewer shot attempts against, and they're scoring goals at a higher rate than before the two paired up.
You may say to yourself: well, doesn't that suggest Murray's improvement is a product of Jones' arrival? That's part of it, yes, but another important element is the consistency established. Murray has played minutes with nearly every defenseman on the Blue Jackets' roster this season and hadn't had a steady partner until Jones came along.
One is a lefty, the other a righty. They know each other well from their days playing in the Western Hockey League. They're very comfortable playing together and associate coach Craig Hartsburg (Murray's former coach in the WHL with Everett) is comfortable deploying them in any situation.
Should these trends continue, it's a good sign for the Blue Jackets and bodes well for their two promising young defensemen.