NEW YORK – If you were only to chart Matt Murray’s career from the moment he turned pro, the progression would look like an unbending arrow fired straight into the sky.
However, that would be ignoring the trying period that helped lay the foundation for his recent success. As difficult as it is to believe now, Murray is only a couple years removed from a time when scouts wondered if he’d ever be able to make the jump beyond junior hockey.
“A lot of people were pretty down on him, there were a lot of naysayers,” Jon Elkin, Murray’s longtime goaltending instructor, told Sportsnet. “In fact, probably most of the league. No one really thought he’d amount to much. As a 15- and 16-year-old going into the OHL, he was quite a big prospect. He was pretty good in minor midget.
“When he hit the ‘O’ for some reason he struggled quite a bit.”
Some of it was your garden-variety struggle – he started less than half the games as a 16-year-old rookie with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds – but the challenges didn’t end there. He lost the starting job in Year 2 when veteran Jack Campbell was acquired in a blockbuster deal and posted one of the lowest save percentages among OHL starters the season after that.
There wasn’t much in the numbers to hint at the massive breakthrough on the horizon. But Elkin, who first had Murray in one of his summer goaltending camps at age eight or nine, continued to believe in the potential.
He felt his pupil had the puzzle pieces. They just weren’t properly arranged yet.
“To his credit, he’s been able to put it all together,” said Elkin.
The tough times are nothing more than a speck of dust on the rear-view mirror today – what with Murray now at the end of his third straight standout season and suddenly thrust into an integral role for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Many of those who saw his strong final year in the OHL still didn’t expect him to reach these kind of heights so quickly. Murray was considered the No. 2 goalie prospect in the Penguins organization as recently as the beginning of last season – behind 2013 second-rounder Tristan Jarry – but that changed during a record-setting campaign as an AHL rookie that included 12 shutouts.
Looking back, Murray identifies a point where everything clicked mentally as the key to speeding up his ascension.
“I just realized that to succeed all you have to do is compete and read the play,” he said. “In the AHL, that was a big thing and it’s obviously just even more so in the NHL. Technique is technique and it’ll help you, I guess, it will get you to your spots.
“But at the end of the day, you have to compete and you’ve got to make saves and you’ve got to read the play because reading the play makes it easier.”
As much as Murray felt the gravity of making his first career post-season start at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night, he always believed that he wound find his way into such a situation at some point.
“I don’t think you can have doubt,” he said. “Otherwise you’ll kind of give in to that.”
That he became just the fifth goalie in the NHL’s salary cap era to post a playoff win before age 22 underscores the speed of his ascent. In the last seven weeks alone, he’s been named to Team North America for the upcoming World Cup, recorded his first NHL shutout and won eight of 10 starts.
Now he’s in control of the Penguins’ crease with Marc-Andre Fleury’s recovery from a concussion taking longer than expected.
Ahead of Thursday’s Game 4 against the New York Rangers, multiple teammates identified Murray’s competitive fire as the thing that stood out most about him.
“He expects a lot of himself,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “I don’t think he came in here just wanting to be part of the mix, I think he likes getting the opportunity and he’s done really well.”
His emergence will make things interesting for the Penguins in the event an expansion draft is conducted a year from now. The NHL currently plans to allow teams to protect just one goaltender as part of that process and Pittsburgh has three intriguing options at the position – with general manager Jim Rutherford still very high on Jarry.
While that could prompt a trade ahead of time, the organization is also somewhat protected if it stands pat because it can only lose one player in total. And there’s no guarantee it’ll be a goalie.
Murray has to be the betting-line favourite as the one they’ll keep from exposing. Even after rocketing through the ranks, Elkin describes him as a player “without a ceiling.”
“You’re talking about a six-(foot)-four kid who can move exceptionally well side-to-side, has great agility,” said Elkin. “His poise is what sets him apart. Just his ability to keep his form no matter what the situation is. That’s a special talent.”
It’s hard to believe he’s talking about the same guy scouts so recently doubted. The 10th goalie taken in the 2012 draft class. A player passed over by the Canadian world junior team a little more than two years ago who is now a key performer for the Penguins.
What a ride.
“I love to see guys develop and take the bull by the horns and do something with their talent,” said Elkin. “It’s amazing, good for him. He’s such a nice kid. He’s just a solid kid.”