It’s been a long wait for Ryan Murray, but it seems he can finally put his best foot forward for the Jackets this season. And that leg is finally strong enough to keep him in the lineup where he belongs.
Artem Anisimov’s return to the ice last Thursday in Florida marked the first game all season in which the Blue Jackets were able to dress their top-four projected centers from the start of training camp. Yet a bigger step toward finding normalcy in a frustratingly abnormal season was the return of Murray two days later in Tampa Bay, their future on the blue line whose vision on the ice cannot be replaced.
“What he brings is puck poise,” said head coach Todd Richards after Wednesday’s practice. “He’s a guy that can move the puck up ice, he can beat F1, he can skate pucks out of trouble. And a lot of times he can calm things down on the back end, just with his poise and his ability to make the play.”
In his two games since returning from injured reserve, Murray has an assist and has played 19:10 and 18:14 in those games, respectively, alongside defense partner David Savard.
Murray had missed 44 total games this year - 36 in a row - due to a knee injury that first reared its head last spring. He was out of the lineup for a month with soreness in the knee but pushed himself back for the playoffs.
“I played with it through the playoffs. It got kind of banged up and I played through it, because obviously I didn’t want to be taken out of the lineup. Everyone plays through things in the playoffs,” said Murray.
After having a scope of the knee done in the summer, Murray’s recovery was slower than anticipated. He remained out of the lineup until Oct. 26. Murray’s stay in the Jackets’ lineup was short-lived when he suffered a setback with the knee and again was removed from the lineup after only four games.
Murray’s second rehab effort would take on a different approach, one of patience and time to ensure that when Murray did return to the ice, his knee would be strong enough to keep him there.
“It’s about building the muscle. You can’t just jump on the squat bar and put 300 pounds on there and do that day after day,” said Murray. “You’re doing a lot of exercises at low weight and that’s why it took so long. I was doing those exercises over and over again and trying to build one step at a time.”
All hockey players hate to sit out. It doesn’t get any easier when that player means as much to the back end for a team as Murray does, particularly with the team’s struggles earlier in the season.
“I just want to be out there, that’s the biggest thing. Sometimes things aren’t going well and you just want to be out there and make a difference,” said Murray. “That’s the hardest part of sitting is just having to watch the game and when the team plays good you want to be out there and have that feeling of accomplishing something and competing and winning. If the guys lose, you wish you could be out there to change things.”
Of course Murray is back out there in large part thanks to one of the more overworked training staffs in the NHL. Head trainer Mike Vogt and his staff have had to deal with many long-term significant injuries this season, and they had the patience to handle Murray’s second rehab properly.
“They’ve really worked their butts off. They’ve done a great job and the whole organization has been respectful about my situation and very patient in not rushing me along,” said Murray.
“I really appreciate that. The trainers have been there every single day; they don’t get many off days. The team gets a Sunday off and they’re in their rehabbing guys. They’re the hardest working guys on the team. I really appreciate them sticking by me.”
Murray is now adjusting not only to the speed of the game, but to the team itself. Where Murray played significant time last year with James Wisniewski, he has instead been paired with Savard in his first two games back, a look that Richards liked.
“Adjusting is exactly what I’d call it,” said Murray. “But I’d love playing with anyone back here, everyone’s capable and a great player. It’s just adjusting to getting back in the lineup and playing and soon I’ll feel back to normal.”
That will come with time. As Richards said on Tuesday, that comfort level doesn’t return overnight.
“A lot of these guys have missed a significant amount of time and it’s hard to catch up, it takes time to get the timing back and the rust off and to get the execution part of it,” said Richards. “That’s what we’ve been going through. We’re getting these guys back and it’s great, but we’re finding it’s taking time. With Ryan, it’s going to take a bit of time.”
Murray wasn’t happy with his game against the Coyotes. He knows it will take time to find his comfort level again, but that doesn’t mean his standards have changed.
“The last game really wasn’t my best game. I didn’t play that well. It doesn’t matter how much time I’ve had off, it’s just not acceptable to have a subpar game. I’ll be looking to get back in that groove.”