San Jose is in an interesting situation this summer. They recently acquired the rights to Brad Stuart from Detroit and are expected to sign him in the near future. With Dan Boyle, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic populating the other three spots in their top-four, speculation has it that tough as nails rearguard Douglas Murray may be trade bait for the team.
Is he a player the Oilers should go after?
It feels a little weird saying this, but my answer is just a lukewarm ‘maybe.’
Why the Oilers Should Pursue Murray
I’ll start by saying that I love Murray’s combination of physical play and discipline. A lot of players that go for the big hit end up getting penalties or suspensions (hello, Andy Sutton), but Murray doesn’t. In just 60 games he was easily the Sharks’ most physical defenseman, but he ended up with a relatively paltry 13 minor penalties. It isn’t an aberration, either – even with fighting majors thrown in, Murray hasn’t taken more than 70 minutes in penalties in any of the last four seasons. Despite that, he manages to be a physically intimidating presence.
Murray has also played tough competition for years. He struggled in that role in 2011-12, but he has been a top four defenseman for a very good team for a long time, and by and large he’s been pretty successful at it.
Then there’s his contract. Murray has just a single season left on his current deal, at $2.5 million. There’s no risk there and for a defenseman with his track record that salary is pretty reasonable.
Why The Oilers Shouldn’t Pursue Murray
My primary fear with Murray is just that he’s slowing down. In 2010-11, he routinely played over 20:00 despite not being a part of the power play; on the season he averaged 19:36 per night. He was down a full minute this season and didn’t play even 15 minutes in any of the Sharks’ last three playoff games.
There are also signs of decline in the shot data. Murray’s Corsi numbers (Corsi is the combination of all shots, missed shots and blocked shots when a player is on the ice and gives a good estimate of which team controls possession) fell off a cliff, despite a drop in his responsibilities and level of opposition.
Some of that might be due to injury. In the article linked at the outset to this piece, Sharks’ writer Kevin Kurz explained things this way:
Murray has one year remaining on his deal for $2.5 million, and it was clear in the postseason against St. Louis (and even before then) that he’d lost a step. The hard-hitting Murray suffered through an injury-plagued 2011-12, and that may have affected his foot speed down the stretch and in the playoffs, but even early in the season he didn’t seem to be moving very well.
That opinion is borne out in the early season numbers. Prior to Murray’s first time missed to injury the Sharks had a Fenwick (Fenwick is just like Corsi, but excludes blocked shots, thus not penalizing players – like Murray – who rely in part on their ability to get into shooting lanes to defend) rating of plus-67 at even-strength without Murray on the ice; with Murray on the ice that number dipped to minus-30.
Those declines suggest to me that Murray would probably be most effective in a reduced role, perhaps as a nasty third-pairing defender on a good team. That’s a role that has great value in a lot of places, but less so to the Oilers than most. What the Oilers really need is help in their top-four; if they’d traded Andy Sutton at the deadline last year things might be different, but they chose to keep him to play the same role that Murray would play in a perfect world.
Even so, I wouldn’t have a problem with the Oilers trading for Murray – except that on the open market I don’t think everyone will be looking at him as a third-pairing guy. He’s affordable, hits an area of need for a lot of teams, and is on a no-risk one-year contract. There are bound to be teams out there that look at his bright points and will pay to take him, teams that don’t have Andy Sutton under contract – teams that would drive up the price of Murray on the open market.
Even if those teams don’t push the market up, San Jose is under no compunction to trade Murray right now. Colin White and Jim Vandermeer are unrestricted free agents; the Sharks could just as easily let Murray slide to their third pairing if they don’t get an offer that suits them.
The Honda Accord
My first car was a little black Honda Accord, a miserable beast that wouldn’t go faster than 70 kilometres per hour up a steep hill, needed its oil topped up every time I refilled the gas tank, and somehow kept running despite a list of maladies longer than this page. It did, on the other hand, have headlights that popped up and down when I flipped a switch. I loved that car.
Anyway, somebody backed into my driver’s side door when it was parked, leaving it dented but usable. I took into my local assessor, who took one look at it and walked over to me.
"Listen," he said, "I can replace the door. We’ll find something similar at a wrecking yard, paint it to match and have it installed. Or, if you think there are more pressing concerns, we can give you $400 and you can spend it on whatever you want."
Given that I’d paid $400 for the entire car, it was a pretty easy decision for me.
The Oilers defense is a lot like that car. It has a serious list of problems. The Oilers have an opportunity this summer to use the assets they have to address some of them.
I really like Douglas Murray, and if things were different I’d love to see the Oilers pick him up. But I suspect he’s going to be a pricey acquisition if he switches teams, and given his struggles this year I think the Oilers would be better off using their assets to acquire a defender who can add some punch to their top-four. A year from now, with Andy Sutton off the books and Murray a free agent, things might be different, but right now he’s not a guy I’d view as a priority target.
If you’re driving a Lamborghini, you fix everything as perfectly as you can. When you’re driving a junker, you need to prioritize.