Friday, 9 May 2014

Is Douglas Murray's value situational, like a third-down pass rusher or left-handed pinch-hitter?

In dissecting an overtime 1-0 loss to the Bruins that evened the series a two wins apiece, Canadiens fans would do well to keep a sense of proportion, although it will be very difficult.  In the post-mortem, fingers will be pointed, and a lot of them will be trained on Douglas Murray.

The big Swede is a bit of a polarizing figure, and not in the sense of a Claude Lemieux or a Mike Ribeiro.  In fact, most Canadiens fans harbour no ill-will toward the big lug, he's a pretty sympathetic figure.  In his long turn as a San Jose Shark, I don't remember him being 'hated' by other teams' fans, notably the Canucks', just sometimes derided for his lack of mobility, and admired for his great size and strength and ability to throw thunderous bodychecks.

Where the two camps form in his case is more with his ability as a hockey player, whether his defensive ability, his toughness, comes at too great a cost for him to hold much or any value to a team.  Some fans love his contribution, the way opponents need to skate with their heads up and not get too fancy when he's in the lineup, while others say having him on the ice is like voluntarily surrendering a powerplay opportunity to the opponents, so limited is his ability to make a good pass or get to loose pucks to clear the zone.

I do notice how the Canadiens often have to scramble in their own zone when he's on the ice, so I understand and don't dismiss those arguing the 'con' side, but something I also notice is how much better behaved other teams like the Bruins and the Flyers, the Leafs and the Senators are when Douglas Murray is in the roster, how much less crap Carey Price has to put up with when the whistle goes and Douglas is standing in front of him.  I don't think it's subjective, that it's confirmation bias.  When he's staring down Douglas Murray, giant pain Wayne Simmonds will avert his gaze and skate to the faceoff circle at the whistle.

The difference to last season's roster, when we had the likes of Tomas Kaberle, RaphaĆ«l Diaz and Yannick Weber on our third pairing, is striking.  Facewashes, scrums, Carey getting his glove hand slashed, getting jostled, they all happened when our overmatched slicksters were getting ragdolled by Chris Neils and Marcus Folignos or other such types impervious to a sense of fair play, and apparently invisible to NHL referees once they blew their whistle.

Veteran observers and fans of the Canadiens will remember a time when a Douglas Murray would have been superfluous to a team that had Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe and Larry Robinson as its central pillars on the blueline, with adjuncts like Brian Engblom, Rod Langway, Bill Nyrop, Pierre Bouchard and Gilles Lupien.  Or a team with Larry Robinson, Chris Chelios, Petr Svoboda, Rick Green, Craig Ludwig, Mike Lalor and Donald Dufresne.  Especially when you have Rick Chartraw, Bob Gainey, Yvon Lambert and Mario Tremblay in your forwards, or Mike McPhee, Shayne Corson, Chris Nilan, Claude Lemieux, Mike Keane and Brian Skrudland.  These guys will act as dampeners, as brakes on opponent excesses.

With defence corps like that, the toughness, the mean quotient, is built into the machine, it's integral to it.  It doesn't have to be bolted on as an accessory.  It's in the mix, like the fiber in carrot cake, it comes in every bite.  The recent defence squads of the Canadiens have been more like sponge cake, you'd have to have an apple next to it on the plate to get your roughage.

The ideal modern defenceman comes in the form of a Shea Weber or a Kevin Bieksa, a player who can play big minutes in any situation.  He can defend, he can provide offence, he can play 5-on-5, shorthanded, on the powerplay, he can rattle your cage, he can answer the bell, he can break out of your zone with a good pass, can connect on occasional stretch passes to spring a forward on a breakaway, he can do it all.

Obviously, there aren't enough of those guys to go around, certainly not six of them for every NHL team, so they have to ice the best roster they can, with matching and complementing skill sets, and that's how guys like Brian Campbell or Anton Volchenkov become very valuable even though there are holes in their skill sets, they tend to do a few things very well and their shortcomings get palliated in various ways.

In football terms, we see this phenomenon with the advent of the situational pass rusher, the Fred Dean, the Sean Phillips or Aldon Smith or Antwan Barnes, a player who won't be much use shedding blockers or tackling runners, but on third downs when a pass attempt is almost guaranteed, can pin his ears back and give linemen fits trying to keep them off their quarterbacks.  In baseball, we see players like the situational lefty reliever, or the left-handed bat who can make contact, and can come in as a pinch-hitter or designated hitter to go up against a rightie.

This player is not a generalist, but a specialist who is handy for a manager to have among his twenty-five man or fifty-three man roster.  He'll be put in in certain situations, against specific opponents, to get a job done.  His teammates can pick up his slack.

Douglas is such a situational player, a guy who adds salt to the batter, kick drum to the groove.  He brings the noise.  Until players like Jarred Tinordi and Greg Pateryn are ready to roll, until and unless prospects like Darren Dietz, Dalton Thrower and Josiah Didier who have a lot of toughness in their skillset pan out, a player like Douglas Murray complements our defence corps, increases its ruggedness profile.  Injected at the right time, against the proper opponents, like a sack specialist or a Del Unser, Douglas provides crucial toughness for his team, and pushback against teams that are likely to use intimidation to cheat their way to a win.

And I'll repeat that Douglas shouldn't be judged against P.K. Subban's or Andrei Markov's numbers.  At worst, you'll look at his performance compared to your next-best defenceman, to a Francis Bouillon or a Jarred Tinordi.  You'll look at it as an opportunity cost versus playing the other #6-7 defencemen on your roster, or those that were available in free agency the previous off-season.

Optimally, you compare him against the likes of a Brooks Orpik or a Shane O'Brien, similar defencemen who are counted on by their teams to add snarl to the lineup, and whose defensive lapses and adventures when handling the puck are forgiven when they play hard, given the current climate in the NHL, and the lax refereeing standards, and the tolerance to extra-curricular activity, to 'finishing your checks', to 'crashing the crease'.

Kind of like you'll forgive your new turbo-hot girlfriend if she dings up the front quarterpanel on your pickup, she makes up for it in other ways.

1 comment:

  1. The question is whether a physical presence is worth a goal or two per game. With Murray in the lineup the team gives up more time in their zone and wastes offensize zone starts sheltering him. It might be worthwhile to dress 7 defencemen if one of them is Murray and to play him on forward or as a 3rd defenceman when the team really needs toughness.