Whether Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Ryan Murray undergoes surgery for his injured shoulder or not, it’s looking unlikely he’ll be suiting up for Team Canada at the World Junior Championship next month. Murray, who reportedly has a small tear in his labrum, would have been one of Canada’s best blueliners available for the raid on Russia; a returning member of the 2012 bronze-medal squad who was excellent as an underager.
If there’s one silver lining here for Canada’s braintrust, it’s that Murray got injured before the final selection camp, thus eliminating him wholesale. It’s much better than last year, when Devante Smith-Pelly, a key shutdown forward who was playing in the NHL with Anaheim, went down in the first game of the tourney when he broke his foot while blocking a shot. The lack of DSP not only put Canada down a man, but his strength and tenacity would have been a key counterbalance in a game such as the semifinal, which Canada lost to Russia in a 6-5 firewagon hockey inferno.
The big question now is who gets Murray’s spot on the blueline? Luckily for Team Canada, the defense is a big strength this season. Returnees Dougie Hamilton (Boston/OHL Niagara) and Scott Harrington (Pittsburgh/OHL London) are locks and I would suspect that even if the NHL lockout were to end soon, the Boston Bruins would rather see Hamilton play in the tournament than begin his pro odyssey in a shortened campaign with a shortened training camp.
As for new additions, the Western League will surely fill out three more spots: The 2012 draft yielded top-10 picks Griffin Reinhart (NY Isles/Edmonton), Morgan Rielly (Toronto/Moose Jaw) and Matt Dumba (Minnesota/Red Deer). Right behind them was Derrick Pouliot (Pittsburgh/Portland), who makes a pretty strong case for inclusion himself.
There’s six right there, not including new blood from the Ontario and Quebec Leagues. In the ‘Q,’ there’s really only one option and that’s Detroit prospect Xavier Ouellet of Blainville-Boisbriand. Ouellet impressed at the CHL Super Series and captains one of the best teams in the league. Over in the OHL, you have to look at Toronto pick Stuart Percy of Mississauga and Carolina’s Ryan Murphy, who plays for Team Canada coach Steve Spott in Kitchener.
Percy is intriguing because he’s a quiet customer – a player who makes the smart decisions on the ice and gets the puck out of his zone with little fuss. Hamilton and Reinhart have the size to shut down the competition, while Rielly and Dumba are the dashing offensive wizards. Does Percy get the nod for balance purposes?
As for Murphy, he’s the most vexing of all candidates. Fairly or not, he has been the Lindsey Buckingham to Hockey Canada’s DeAndre Cole, constantly left on the couch for international play while supporters ask “What up with that?” Like Rielly and Dumba, Murphy is an offensive dynamo, though at 5-foot-11, 176 pounds, he’s the smallest of the bunch. On the positive side of the ledger, Murphy’s speed will trump his size on the international-sized rinks in Ufa, where more ice means more space to elude burly defenders. On the other hand, at some point he’s going to come up against big, strong competition – Mikhail Grigorenko of Russia, Joel Armia and Sasha Barkov of Finland, Filip Forsberg of Sweden and whatever rogue’s gallery the Americans go to war with (Tyler Biggs seems likely), not to mention Kitchener teammate Radek Faksa of the Czech Republic – and the coaching staff must trust he can do so.
Which brings us to the most interesting part of the Murphy case file. Does the fact his OHL coach is also Canada’s bench boss give him an edge, based on familiarity? Recent history says otherwise. In 2011, coach Dave Cameron went with a netminding battery of Mark Visentin and Olivier Roy, leaving off his own Mississauga goaltender J.P. Anderson. Both goalies struggled and Canada lost the gold in shocking fashion to Russia, while Anderson led the OHL in most statistical categories, including shutouts, wins and goals-against average. Maybe familiarity doesn’t have to breed contempt.
Needless to say, if Murphy does earn a spot, it will be at the expense of several other very talented blueliners – the same of which can be said for Percy, Pouliot and Ouellet. It’s a nice problem for Canada to have, but with a gold medal drought stretching back three tournaments, it’s still one that must be rectified.
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN’s associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.