One of my favorite writers in the hockey blogosphere is Josh Lile of Defending Big D who wrote a great piece about a month ago regarding former Stars coach and current Coyotes bench boss Dave Tippett's view on defense. In an interview with The Arizona Republic, Tippett discussed the "player-efficiency ratings" he doles out to his skaters for each 10-game segment of the season. While he doesn't go into detail about what exactly these ratings entail, they seem like superior versions of possession metrics like Corsi or Fenwick that describe in greater detail the puck's location when each player is on the ice. The money quote from Tippett comes when he contrasts two defensemen whom he coached during his days behind the bench of the now-defunct IHL's Houston Aeros:
We had a player that was supposed to be a great, shut-down defenseman. He was supposedly the be-all, end-all of defensemen. But when you did a 10-game analysis of him, you found out he was defending all the time because he can’t move the puck. Then we had another guy, who supposedly couldn’t defend a lick. Well, he was defending only 20 percent of the time because he’s making good plays out of our end. He may not be the strongest defender, but he’s only doing it 20 percent of the time. So the equation works out better the other way. I ended up trading the other defenseman.
Douglas Murray had the worst full season of his NHL career in 2011-12. And while he's probably not the worst puck-mover in the league, his outlet passing ability is limited on a good day. Although injuries took their toll, Murray was in large part still the same physical own-zone assassin he's made a name for himself around the league for being. The issue was, as Tippett points out, he was defending all the time this year, his inability to help the Sharks exit the zone cleanly fully exposed.
Of course this isn't anything new. Murray has never been a defenseman you can count on to move the puck north but has still managed to at least saw off possession with opposing top six forwards every season he's been in the league before this one. So why was Murray hemmed in his own zone, bleeding shots and scoring chances against, to a greater degree this season than previous ones? There are a lot of reasons but the obvious and probably most significant one is that he was starting in his own end far more often than he ever has before in his career:
|Season||Defensive Zone Start%|
Surprisingly enough, considering Murray's defensive reputation, this was his first season in the NHL in which he started more of his even-strength shifts in his own end of the rink than the offensive zone. A lot of that has to do with being frequently paired with more offense-oriented defensemen in the past, initially Christian Ehrhoff when he first broke into the league (as well as everyone's favorite ex-Shark Brian Campbell for a stretch) and then Dan Boyle after Ehrhoff was traded to the Canucks. But his most common partner this year, Brent Burns, isn't a departure from any of those three blueliners in terms of skillset which is what makes their awful performance as a pairing that much more inexplicable.
When Murray and Burns were on the ice together this season, the Sharks earned just 46.6% of the Corsi events (EV goals, shots on goal, missed shots and blocked shots), an abysmal clip that stands in stark contrast to Burns' performance with any other defense partner, where San Jose earned 55.9% of the Corsi events. Their scoring chance ratio as a pairing was dreadful as well but even more curious was Murray's performance with longtime partner Boyle this year. When Murray and Boyle shared the ice at even-strength from the time Boyle arrived in San Jose to the end of last season, the Sharks earned a solid 52.7% of the Corsi events. This year, when Murray/Boyle was on the ice, the Sharks were a 45.8% Corsi team.
I'm at a loss to really explain this preciptous drop in Murray's play. I watched him closely over the second half of the season from the time I noticed he was really taking a toll on Burns but I couldn't pinpoint any single thing that was markedly different about Murray from previous seasons. He was just...defending all the time. Some of it can probably be chalked up to variance, some of it to Burns' own shortcomings with puck movement (although that doesn't explain Murray's numbers with Boyle), some of it perhaps to other teams finally realizing they can exploit Murray's relative immobility. Whatever the case, it all added up to a very bad year.
Douglas Murray Statistical Overview
|Season||GP||TOI/60||Corsi Rel QoC||DZone%||Corsi Rel||PDO||+/-/60|
|2011-2012||60||16.01 (4th)||0.755 (3rd)||52.7% (2nd)||-16.2 (7th)||1008 (1st)||+0.12 (4th)|
|2010-2011||73||16.66 (3rd)||0.608 (2nd)||47.8% (7th)||-5.9 (6th)||1000 (5th)||+0.10 (5th)|
|2009-2010||79||16.46 (2nd)||0.956 (1st)||48.9% (5th)||-1.5 (4th)||1005 (6th)||+0.05 (6th)|
|2008-2009||75||14.53 (5th)||-0.084 (3rd)||44.3% (6th)||-3.0 (5th)||1002 (3rd)||+0.17 (5th)|
|2007-2008||66||14.51 (6th)||0.306 (4th)||48.4% (3rd)||-3.9 (6th)||1041 (1st)||+1.38 (1st)|
Rankings are among Sharks defensemen who appeared in at least 40 games that season. 7 qualified each year.
Put it all together and you've got a defensive defenseman who does more to hurt than help his team when deployed in more difficult defensive situations. That's not a ringing endorsement of Murray as a player and while it certainly bears mentioning that Murray's injuries this season probably contributed to his poor showing, the Sharks can't afford to ice a top-four defenseman who drags down his partner. Although he's only played five full seasons in the NHL, it's important to remember that, at 32, Murray's no spring chicken and his physical style of play has likely worn down his body over the years so I wouldn't be overly optimistic about a rebound season.
FTF Grade: D. Finding an upgrade on Murray to pair with Burns should be one of Doug Wilson's main priorities this offseason. We'll discuss the options in detail as it gets closer to the draft and free agency but Paul Martin, the Pittsburgh media and fanbase's favorite scapegoat, should be available for cheap in trade and former Shark Matt Carle is likely to hit the free agent market with the Flyers already bumping up against the yet-to-be-officially-established $69 million salary cap. Another former Shark, Brad Stuart, has been bandied about as an inevitable UFA signing for over a year now but I'm not convinced he represents a significant improvement over Murray. As for divesting themselves of the final year of Murray's contract, the Sharks should be able to fetch decent value for him in a trade considering his reputation around the league and the fact that, despite his terrible underlying numbers this season, Niemi and Greiss combined to post a .944 even-strength SV% when he was on the ice, propping up his +/-. I'm not great at coming up with realistic trade proposals but if the Sharks can somehow package Murray with a lower-round draft pick to nab Michael Frolik from the Blackhawks, that's absolutely a deal they should make.