Except stopping nearly everything that comes his way, of course.
That’s what Murphy has done in a sparkling career with Belleville of the Ontario Hockey League. In two years as a starter, the 20-year-old sixth-round pick of the Hurricanes in 2008 posted an overall regular season record of 85-23-10 with two All-Star appearances. This season, he led all OHL goaltenders in goals-against average (2.08) and save percentage (.941) – all while facing the second-highest shot total of any other netminder (1871).
Those statistics, along with two OHL Goaltender of the Month awards from this season, make him a favorite to win his second consecutive Goaltender of the Year prize.
“Mike had a terrific year last year when we drafted him and has followed up with another very strong effort this year,” said Tony MacDonald, the Hurricanes’ director of amateur scouting. “He’s a competitive guy who’s well-liked by his teammates, he’s got terrific quickness and tremendous reflexes.”
So how could a player widely considered the best at his position in one of the world’s top junior leagues fall all the way to the 165th overall pick? Two factors: his style, which can be somewhat unpredictable at times, and his size, currently listed by the Hurricanes at 5-foot-11 and 161 pounds.
However, those limitations aside, the Hurricanes feel that Murphy displays a number of other positive qualities that make him an exciting prospect for the future.
“He is a very, very determined young man and a tremendous competitor,” said MacDonald. “He never quits on a puck, and that’s reflected in his style and the way that he plays the game. It’s served him well to this point in time, and it will serve him well as he continues to develop as a young goaltender.”
“He’s not the world’s biggest guy, and he doesn’t play your typical structured style of goaltending, but the bottom line is that you’ve got to stop the puck,” said Jason Karmanos, the Hurricanes’ vice president and assistant general manager. “More than anything, no matter what position you play, you’ve got to have that determination. He’s got that, and it’s going to take him a long way.”
For someone coming off a season like Murphy had in 2007-08, there’s no doubt that falling to the sixth round of the draft and not being selected to play for Canada at the next year’s World Junior Championship was a tough pill to swallow. An encouraging sign for the Canes is that such adversity has actually spurred him on to become a better goaltender.
“He’s been able to overcome any obstacle that’s been in his way to this point just through that sheer determination, hard work and willingness to do whatever it takes,” said MacDonald. “He’s mentally tough, and he can handle things like the disappointment of not being invited to compete for a national team job this year. He accepted that and worked twice as hard on his game, came back and had a tremendous second half for the Bulls.”
Although the Hurricanes would eventually like Murphy to refine some of the subtle technical aspects of his play, they aren’t about to make major changes to what has gotten him this far.
“I think if we try to overhaul his game we’re doing him a disservice,” said Tom Barrasso, the Hurricanes’ goaltending coach and director of goalie development, who worked with Murphy at this past summer’s rookie and training camps. “The most important thing for young players is to realize what they do that makes them successful, get them to identify that and realize that that’s the key to their success. Once they do that, I think they have a better understanding of how to move forward with their game.”
Despite the fact that Murphy’s style still defies some of the finer points of standard goaltending procedure, it has nonetheless come a long way since he played his first OHL game in 2005-06.
“I remember in Mike’s first year in the league, you don’t want to use the comparison to Dominik Hasek, but in terms of style he was all over the ice,” recalled MacDonald. “He’d be on his back and on his knees and on his stomach, and there were games where he’d lose his stick half a dozen times over the course of a game. He’s modified that somewhat over the last couple of years and tightened his game up considerably.”
Although there is room for him to bulk up, Murphy will never be able to completely overcome his slight stature. If he is to make it to the NHL, he’ll need to use the other tools at his disposal to compensate.
“Size is size, but his quickness, his positioning and his work ethic – all those things can still allow him to be successful at this level,” said Barrasso. “While size is nice, if you can’t move your feet and you can’t compete, recover and get to where the rebounds are, all the size in the world doesn’t matter.”
As the OHL playoffs begin, Murphy’s Belleville team is embarking on its quest for a Memorial Cup as champions of all Canadian junior hockey. That quest narrowly eluded it last season when it qualified for the four-team tournament as OHL finalists but lost to Kitchener in the semi-finals.
Once Belleville’s run is over, Murphy will prepare for his first professional season with the Hurricanes’ American Hockey League affiliate. Murphy recently signed his first NHL contract, a three-year entry-level deal, with the intention of competing for a starting job in the AHL next season.
It will be an important step in the young goaltender’s career, as he clearly has little left to prove in junior hockey.
“When you dominate, and there’s no other way to describe it, the way he has at that level, you’re certainly showing good signs that you have a chance,” said Karmanos.