The New Jersey Devils spent part of last offseason attempting to fix a position that has been a weakness for some time now: their defense. With only P.K. Subban and Damon Severson returning as regulars from 2019-20 (I’m not counting Will Butcher because he didn’t really “return” in 2021), the Devils made four moves to try and create a solid core:
- They gave Ty Smith his shot at a full time role
- Dmitry Kulikov was signed to a one year deal
- Sami Vatanen was brought back also on a one year deal
- The team traded a 5th round pick for Ryan Murray
Okay now the first two of those moves definitely each worked to a degree; Smith had himself an excellent rookie season and Kulikov was a good back end presence until the team moved him at the trade deadline for an underwhelming return. The Vatanen retread became an apparent mistake the more Sami played; while still a character guy, his injury woes from last season seemed to have affected his overall play. Murray was the polarizing player among this group; some said he was fine as a defender, while others seemed disappointed by his play.
Of the four mentioned moves, only two at this point in time have any long-term potential for the Devils: Smith (who is rightfully going nowhere) and Murray who will be entering unrestricted free agency. Kulikov is still in the playoffs with the Edmonton Oilers, and Vatanen should not be coming back for a third stint.
So that leaves us with a Murray dilemma: should the Devils be working toward bringing him back, or do they case him off?
Murray has never been the most prolific point producer; he has done his job over his career of chipping in assists from the back end, but has only lit the lamp 15 times in 395 career games. He also has had well documented trouble with staying healthy during his NHL career, as he has only managed to appear in all 82 games once across his eight seasons in the league.
On the other side of the coin, Murray is more known for his defending anyway; his positioning on the ice enables him to play opponents strongly, and while he’s not as physical as a Kulikov-type player, it’s not to say that he completely shies away from contact either. In addition, he’s not inept at moving the puck out of his own end either, which is a needed skill to be effective on the back in today’s NHL.
So what should the Devils do about Murray; do they bring him back, or do they let him go off to free agency to join possibly his third team in his career? I don’t know if it is a simple answer.
With the Expansion Draft on the horizon, it’s doubtful that management re-signs anyone that they do not need to prior to Seattle making their choices. The Devils already have enough defenders on the roster, both to protect and leave exposed for the draft per the rules. With this in mind, bringing back Murray would not make sense at this juncture, unless it wouldn’t bother the organization to leave Subban or Jonas Siegenthaler exposed.
More concerning, and posing a stronger argument against a new contract, is the fact that the Devils defense of 2021 went through some tough spells, even with both Murray and Kulikov (who again, was being given lots of praise from fans) in the lineup. Now some of that was certainly because of other personnel (defense and goaltending related at times) but one could also make the argument that the defense group as a whole still wasn’t good enough last season. Due to their shortcomings, the Devils should be looking to find more impactful players who are available and replace the passable Murrays of the league.
An important factor to keep in mind though is the perception of Devils’ management; out of all available UFAs who had value from their play this season, Murray was the only one not traded or waived prior to the deadline. I have to believe this is because the Devils believed he would be a strong candidate to try and re-sign; perhaps the Siegenthaler acquisition threw a wrench into this happening prior to expansion, but it doesn’t mean the Devils can’t still bring Murray back.
From watching this past season, purely on an eye test, Murray was above average; he was never a superstar on the ice, but rarely was he completely out of place, or worse, obstructing the goalie’s sight. He also managed a bounce back season health-wise, appearing in 48 of 56 games. With a fairly weak left side heading into 2021-22, keeping a solid defender like Murray wouldn’t hurt.
So what’s my verdict here? Do we bring Murray back or not? I think the key factor is whether or not the team can upgrade on him; if you have a player available in the league who can do what Murray does plus more (or better) you try to get that guy instead. If the opportunities aren’t there, sign Ryan back due to his familiarity with the team now, and the fact that he’s a much better option than some other left handed players still on the roster. I wouldn’t commit to anything super long-term (which could be what he is looking for) due to injury history and the team’s need to continue upgrading, but you could do a lot worse than Ryan Murray, as we’ve seen from past Devils rosters.
What are your thoughts on the Devils bringing Murray back; should they do it? Is there someone else you would rather see brought in over him to play on the left side? Is this the year the Devils finally fix their defensive woes? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!