In a sense, Matt Murray is all of us.
His experiences in his first season in goal for the Ottawa Senators mirror the past year for the community at large. There have been highs and lows. Patience is demanded, human resolve tested.
We are Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill. Again and again. Mentally disheartened, but with flashes of optimism that a corner is being turned after months of battling an invisible opponent.
The community looks to a vaccine and a change of season as rays of hope.
Murray looks ahead and tries to believe that he and his new team can grow into a cohesive, reliable working unit. A team fans will take pride in when the gates re-open one day and fans return to the Canadian Tire Centre.
While Murray, 26, was brought in to be Ottawa’s goaltender of the present and future, there were going to be bumps on that road. Murray was leaving a perennial contender in Pittsburgh to become the goalie saviour on a rebuilding Senators roster, picking up the torch left by Craig Anderson after 10 years of mostly stellar work. And, Murray himself was coming off a sub-par season in 2019-20, one in which he lost the starter’s job to Tristan Jarry. So Murrray was looking to rebound on a personal level.
To put it mildly, Murray’s first half-season in Ottawa has been a roller coaster. Overall, he has the worst stats of any NHL goalie with 15 or more starts: 7-12-1 with a .880 save percentage and 3.84 goals-against. San Jose’s Martin Jones has similar numbers, although with fewer starts than Murray: 7-6-1 .879 and 3.84.
Acquired in October for forward prospect Jonathan Gruden and a second-round pick in the 2020 draft (used to select Finnish goalie Joel Blomqvist), Murray quickly signed a four-year contract that pays him $6.25 million per season. On the current Senators payroll, only defenceman Thomas Chabot at $8 millions per year makes more than Murray.
Living up to the contract was an obvious challenge. Beyond that, Murray was expected to be a pillar of strength behind a young, unfamiliar group. Ottawa’s defence has been a work in progress, constantly searching for a consistent group of pairings, and the overall inexperience on the roster was certain to leave Murray vulnerable.
At times, the Senators have played with heart and vigour, from the net out.
Other nights, it is all fans can do to watch the unfolding disaster.
Wednesday’s 7-1 debacle in Edmonton, which was likely the Senators’ worst outing of the season, Game 4 of a five-game western road swing, clearly illustrated the issues for Murray as well as for his mates. Murray gave up four goals on the first 13 shots, but two came on breakaways, including a two-on-Murray for a tap in. The other breakaway featured a Leon Draisaitl deke of defenceman Mike Reilly, skating around him as though he were a red pylon, with plenty of time to fake Murray down and lift a shot over him.
Draisaitl and Connor McDavid are feasting on Senators zone coverage or lack thereof – to the tune of 28 combined points in six games against Ottawa. Draisaitl has 15 points, McDavid 13.
Ottawa barely seemed to touch the puck at times, and the game finished with the Oilers passing the puck around in the Senators end, as though on a string. It looked like a minor-league team facing Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers.
"This can’t keep happening," Senators alternate captain Brady Tkachuk said after the rout. "It’s frustrating. It sucks. Everyone hates losing but to get blown out like that it’s infuriating.
"Absolutely embarrassing. It’s tough to put into words. Just frustrating and embarrassing."
Head coach D.J. Smith accepted a big share of the blame for not having his team ready, even questioning his decision to have them take an early morning game-day skate. Once the game started, there was too much freelancing, he said.
"Structure protects the team, especially a young team playing against a couple of the best players in the world," Smith said. "Of all their chances, we went through it today, that had nine legitimate chances and eight were by the Draisaitl-McDavid line. When you don’t play them with structure and give them odd-man rushes and chances like that, they’re going to make you pay."
There was plenty of blame to go around, but Murray shares in it. At times he seems to be fighting the puck. And a couple of Edmonton shots leaked through him, including Draisaitl’s third of the night.
And yet, on nights when Murray does what is asked of him – make the early save while the Senators find their legs, especially on the road; don’t give up a bad goal, particularly in the first period – these nights have gone well. He says he also feeds off the disciplined play in front of him, when it’s there.
"That’s part of your job as a goalie and I can do a better job of that for sure," Murray said on Thursday, about holding the fort early. "But it’s kind of both sides of that – when we’re playing well, we’re playing with structure, we’re simplifying and we’re making the game hard for the other team.
"We’re not just giving them space to make plays and do whatever they want. Just simple hockey. That’s what wins nowadays if you do it the right way. If we can get back to that, we’ll be better."
What is most striking about Murray’s performance in 22 games, 20 of them starts, is the polar nature of his outings. The Good Murray versus The Off Murray. All goaltenders generally have better numbers in their wins than in their losses, but check out Murray’s stats in games his team has won versus those they lost:
Murray’s record in wins: 7-0-0
Save percentage: .927
Murray’s record in losses: 0-12-1
Save percentage: .852
The numbers jump out even more in individual outings. Forget, for now, his early starts when the team was really struggling. Consider his past six performances. These are his victories:
March 7 at Flames: OTT 4, CAL 3 (SO); Shots/Saves – 34/31; Save% .912
March 1 vs. Flames: OTT 5, CAL 1; Shots/Saves – 28/27; Save% .964
Feb. 25 vs. Flames: OTT 6, CAL 1; Shots/Saves – 30/29; Save% .967
These are Murray’s losses since Feb. 25:
March 10 at Oilers: EDM 7, OTT 1; Shots/Saves – 36/29; Save% .806
March 4 vs. Flames: CAL 7, OTT 3; Shots/Saves – 11/7 (pulled after 1st period); Save% .636
Feb. 27 vs. Flames: CAL 6, OTT 3; Shots/Saves – 33/27; Save% .818
At some point, the giant gulf between wins and losses needs to shrink to a competitive middle ground. Close games that the Senators will learn, over time, to close out.
The question now, where to from here.
Smith may or may not turn to backup Joey Daccord for Friday’s road trip finale in Edmonton. Daccord played well in Monday’s 3-2 loss to the Oilers, stopping 34 of 37 Edmonton shots. Daccord is 0-2-0 with a 2.71 goals-against and .913 save percentage.
Eventually, though, the Senators have to get Murray rehabilitated. They have invested in him for the long haul. While wins and losses don’t mean much anymore to a last-place team, 12 points out of a playoff spot, they need to finish the season on an encouraging note.
That means finding ways to help Murray find his game. Whether that means playing his way out of this or taking a brief break to work on his game in practice sessions, the Murray project is a front-burner issue for the Senators.