The New Jersey Devils made a trade the night before unrestricted free agency opens up on Friday at noon. According to Corey Masisak of The Athletic on Twitter, confirming news from Aaron Portzline, the Devils have traded their fifth round pick in 2021 to the Columbus Blue Jackets for defenseman Ryan Murray.
This move will fill in a good amount of the space that would have been created by the Devils’ buy out of Cory Schneider. According to CapFriendly, Murray is entering the final season of a two-season contract in 2020-21 with a cap hit of $4.6 million. The Devils will pay him a little bit above that in base salary - $4.7 million. This now means the Devils are back to being roughly $4.3 million below the salary cap floor going into tomorrow’s period of free agency. This deal creates even more cap room for Columbus; with a projected $14 million in available space, they could be Serious Players on Friday.
Given that he was acquired for just a fifth round pick in 2021, I would not expect a whole lot from Murray. On the one hand, he does fit a positional need for the Devils. He is a left-shooting defenseman. With Mirco Mueller not being qualified, the left side of the Devils’ defense became an area of need. Murray can play on this side. Can he play well on the left side? Well, that first depends on whether he can play at all. He only appeared in 27 games in 2019-20. Pale Dragon of The Cannon reviewed Murray’s 2019-20 season and highlighted his back issues from this season as well as the fact he has missed at least 16 games a season since 2015-16. It is a concern; the most he has played since 2015-16 was 60 games in 2016-17. Since then, he’s played in 44, 56, and 27 in the last three seasons. I am sympathetic; it is not like he wanted to be injured. But you cannot provide any value if you cannot play. The readers at the Cannon graded his campaign last season with a ‘C,’ which indicates he was fine when he played. But, again, a $4.6 million defender who has trouble staying on the ice is not going to provide much value. I can understand why Columbus wanted to move on from him and was willing to accept a late draft pick to do it.
For what it is worth, when Murray did play last season, he did play a decent amount of minutes. Here are his ice time stats at NHL.com. In his career in Columbus, his even strength ice time range was from 16:01 (2016-17, 60 games) to 18:19 (2018-19, 56 games). He did average at least 1:44 of shorthanded ice time per game, which indicates he was at least a regular part of their penalty kill, if not on their primary unit. This suggests to me that when Murray played, he was often on a second pairing.
A quick look at his production indicates that there is not much to expect there. Murray has scored just eight goals in 5-on-5 play in his entire NHL career per Natural Stat Trick. He has scored 15 goals in all situations in his career per his player page at NHL.com. Murray’s most prolific shooting season was in 2015-16 when he had 90 shots in his sole 82-game season. There is little reason to think he will produce anything of significance on the boxscore.
In terms of what happened when he was on the ice, let us look at what took place in those 27 games last season. Here are Columbus’ on-ice rate stats in 5-on-5 play, which come from Natural Stat Trick:
- Shooting Attempts (Corsi) - CF/60: 54.23, CA/60: 57.55, CF% 48.51%
- Shots on Net - SF/60: 28.64, SA/60: 28.50, SF%: 50.12%
- Expected Goals - xGF/60: 2.14, xGA/60: 1.88, xGF% 53.29%
- Actual Goals - GF/60: 1.80, GA/60: 2.21, GF% 44.83%
- Scoring Chances - SCF/60: 25.32, SCA/60: 26.28, SCF%: 49.06%
- High Danger Scoring Chances - HDCF/60: 8.99, HDCA/60: 7.47, HDCF%: 54.62%
- PDO - Shot%: 6.28%, Save%: 92.23%
While this all comes from just 27 games, these are not heinous numbers by any means. They are way, way better than Mirco Mueller’s on-ice rates at 5-on-5, for example. And better than all of the other Devils last season in some categories, such as Corsi For%. It is not encouraging to see that the run of play went against the Blue Jackets more often than not when Murray was on the ice. Equally non-encouraging is seeing that scoring chances were also in the red when Murray took a shift. However, the Blue Jackets did have a favorable share of shots on net and high danger scoring chances when he was on the ice. At the least, it does not appear he was a drain on the team or holding them back from going forward. If anything, I would say he was a bit unfortunate last season. On top of missing most of the season due to back issues, the Blue Jackets struggled to finish when he was on the ice. The expected goals model is just a model, but a low team shooting percentage of 6.28% would go a long way to explain how a team expected to score at a rate of 2.14 goals per 60 minutes actually scored just 1.8 per 60 minutes. What this all suggests to me that is that Murray was not all that bad of a defender. By no means he was as good as their first pairing defenders or Vladislav Gavrikov. Murray could do a decent job on the ice - when he was available to be on the ice at all.
This trade is essentially the Devils taking a flyer on him. If Murray is healthy enough to play in 2020-21 and can perform at a similar level, then he would be an upgrade for the Devils’ defense. He may not be the big-minute player to fill in the spot that Andy Greene was in for so many years. I would not expect that to happen. He can be someone to stabilize a blueline that has been getting pinned back a lot for several seasons now. The change of scenery - this would be Murray’s second franchise in the NHL - could help along with the extended offseason helping his body recover. Murray is also entering a contract year, so he has additional incentive to want to put in a good performance for his own future. It is reasonable to think that he could at least be decent. After seeing plenty of non-decent performances on the left side of the defense for the better part of the last four seasons, someone being decent is an upgrade.
If it does not work out, then there is little lost. A fifth round pick is essentially a shot in the dark at the NHL Draft. Sure, a team generally wants to have as many opportunities as possible to hit on someone. But after having so many picks over the last five seasons or so, the Devils can afford to move a late draft pick or two (or even more). In fact, they still own Buffalo’s fifth rounder in 2021 so they are not even shut out from that round. In a majority of cases, a fifth round pick does not make it to the NHL. Provided his body lets him, Ryan Murray will be suiting up for the New Jersey Devils.
There is also little commitment that the Devils have for Murray. Regardless of what happens in 2020-21, Murray’s contract will end after this season. He will become an unrestricted free agent. If he does not perform well or if he is not able to play all that much, then the Devils can easily let him walk with no penalty after 2020-21. Or, if he has any value by the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline, they can try to deal him and recoup that fifth round pick - or even get more, if possible. The only significant cost that is being paid here is his $4.7 million salary. But the Devils’ cap is more than fine because they had a lot of space to start with and will create even more of it with Schneider’s buy out. As of this writing, they still need to spend at least $4.4 million to reach the cap floor anyway. This move will not really prevent the Devils from doing anything they may want to try to do in free agency. It may mean they do not necessarily spend a lot on a veteran left-sided defenseman like they may have planned for tomorrow. But if they want to do that anyway, they still can. This trade should not cause you to worry about Tom Fitzgerald’s cap.
If there is anyone to be disappointed, then it may be in the young left-sided defensemen in the system. A spot will have to be earned by Ty Smith and Kevin Bahl (among others). One will simply not be there waiting for them. I am more than fine with this. I would prefer to have incoming pros to battle for minutes as opposed to go into camp, preseason, or the regular season knowing there is a spot waiting for them. I think there is still a hope that one of them - namely, Smith - will do well enough to play in New Jersey next season. Provided the Devils do not go out and sign a bunch of left-sided defenders in free agency, the opportunity is still there. It just is not as wide open as it was prior to this deal being made. It also means the Devils are not relying so much on Smith or Bahl to be truly ready for the NHL. I am in favor of giving prospects a chance, but not necessarily to expect them to do a lot of heavy lifting right away. Murray and Butcher can do some of that until they show they can.
Ultimately, there is not a lot to dislike about this deal. It is a low-risk trade that fills a position of need for next season. While Murray’s health and availability is a concern, he has been at least a decent defender when he was able to play. He was used to kill penalties and played a good amount for the Blue Jackets. He will not provide anything more than a little offensive production, but he may not be a detriment to the team’s run of play. That alone would make him an improvement over players such as Mueller. Given that I do not expect the Devils to be truly battling for a playoff spot in 2020-21 (although I hope they do anyway, I’m a fan, after all), I do not think much is lost if he does not work out in New Jersey. They can let him go for free after 2020-21 whether he is unable to play due to injuries, plays poorly in New Jersey, or a combination of the two. (And if he’s healthy, he may be an option to move at the 2021 trade deadline.) The fifth rounder is not likely going to come back to haunt the Devils. While I do not expect a lot out of the deal, I can see the merit in it. I like it. More importantly, I understand and respect it.
Now that you know what I think of the trade, I want to know what you think of it. Do you like this trade from the Devils’ perspective? What do you think of Ryan Murray as a defenseman? Will he help the Devils’ blueline? Do you think he can stay relatively healthy for the first time in five seasons in 2020-21? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the deal in the comments. Thank you for reading.