Going into last season, the expectations were pretty low for the new-look Blue Jackets. With the lockout stealing away all of the 2012 portion of the schedule, including training camp, Columbus would come in in January with a lot to figure out and not a lot of time to do it. Several new faces dotted the dressing room, and no one knew quite what to expect.
Except for one thing: Ryan Murray, considered the most NHL-ready prospect in the 2012 draft, would not be a part of it.
On November 16th, Murray went down with a worst-case-scenario shoulder injury. He had previous labrum damage, and had been told that he could finish the season without surgery: "I went to a couple of doctors, and they both said I probably had a torn labrum," Murray said. "You can play with a torn labrum, but if [the shoulder] pops out then you're in trouble." Murray noted that he probably could have had the damage fixed then and been back to hockey earlier, but given the fact that many hockey players finish the season with a torn labrum, he elected to play on. "[The labrum injury] was just before the lockout, too, and I wanted a chance to play."
But, of course, Murphy's Law being what it is, in that November 16th game, Murray's shoulder dislocated, which compounded the existing labrum damage. The injury was so destructive that Murray had to wait until January for the swelling to subside enough simply to get the surgery to fix his shoulder. It would be the first stint of a spring of endless waiting for the 19-year-old.
From NHL-ready to playing the waiting game, all in a span of six months' time. For Murray, it brought some perspective. "It was tough," Murray told me. "You never want your season to end like that. It was a long rehab, and it was something that you never want to happen. But, it's something you go through, and something you learn from. You have to look at the positives, I guess. Over the past four years, the most time off I've had is probably about a month and a half. I got some time off, and now I'm fresh and ready to go."
Murray was able to get back to work this summer, as he started skating at the end of April. He was able to start doing full contact work at the Blue Jackets' Development Camp in early July. But, there's no real substitute for game contact and action. To that end, Murray was able to get some of that back as a member of the Jackets' team of prospects in the Traverse City tournament. The wait had been long, and Murray was ready: "I was more excited for [the tournament] than I can remember ever being excited for a game."
"It was a fun tournament," Murray said. "It was good to be back playing hockey. It was a bit of a run-and-gun tournament, with not a lot of systems. Everyone was just out there to play, and it's a lot of fun playing like that. The first game was pretty rusty for me. I was making some bad reads, and just feeling that pressure with the puck. The first game I eased into it a bit, but after that I felt fine."
There's always a bit of a mental hurdle to get over for athletes coming back from injury. "[The shoulder] felt good," Murray said. "I got a couple of checks into the boards here and there, and it felt solid. There were no problems with it. I'm really happy to have that."
Jackets fans finally got a taste of what Murray is capable of on Sunday against the Penguins. With the caveat of it being an exhibition game, things never looked too big for him, and of course for whatever shortcomings he may have had during the game, he got the last laugh with the game-winning goal in overtime. "I felt a little nervous at the start. The first couple of shifts, I made some pretty brain-dead plays," Murray said after the game. "Coming toward the middle of the game, I started to feel more comfortable. It was a good way to finish. Umby made a great heads-up play to see me trailing in, and I just buried my head and tried to get the shot up as much as I could, and luckily it went in."
Perhaps the biggest setback for Murray's chances to make the NHL team comes not from his injury, but from the rise to strength of the Blue Jackets' blue line a season ago. In 2012, it was believed Murray had the inside track to make the club out of camp. However, the emergence of Dalton Prout as well as the addition of Tim Erixon--combined with Murray's injury--have muddied those waters.
The silver lining for the Jackets--and ultimately perhaps for Murray himself--would be that, given the extra year on the calendar, Murray can now be sent to AHL Springfield where he would get the chance to play top-pairing minutes every night while getting back up to full speed. In that sense, there's no longer any kind of rush... which may suit Murray just fine.
After all, he's already waited plenty. What's just a little more?