Judging the quality of a goaltending prospect is very difficult and projecting their future performance is even more challenging. The reason for this is because goaltending performance tends to be very random over the course of time and the difference between the eighth best goalie and twentieth is usually very small in any given league. That and a top goalie in one league doesn’t always make a smooth transition to the next level without some growing pains. Carolina goaltending prospect Mike Murphy is a good example of that.
When Murphy first arrived in the OHL, he struggled for playing time and had a save percentage of less than .900 in 21 games played. Once he got his feet wet and played more games, he became one of the better goalies in junior hockey and had a fantastic season in 2008-09 with a .941 save percentage in 54 games played. His post-junior career has also been pretty solid as he has been splitting starting duties with the likes of Justin Peters and Justin Pogge in Charlotte the last few years. Last season, however, was a bit of a step down for him. He was battling some injuries and posted a save percentage of only .908 in 37 games. It wasn’t a major decline from the previous year but a step down regardless.
Murphy did get to make his NHL debut last season, though and set an NHL record by becoming the first goalie to be charged with a loss despite not giving up a goal. The Canes were trailing by three when he entered a game against Calgary, scored once to make it a two-goal game and then the Flames would score an empty net goal to make it 7-4. Carolina then scored two last-minute goals to make it 7-6 and Murphy ended up getting charged with the loss because the ENG ended up being the game-winner. It’s a strange occurrence that will probably lead to Murphy becoming a hockey trivia question.
As for Murphy’s AHL track record, I think that he will rebound in another season there so I’m not too worried about his performance there. The biggest issue for Murphy in the pros seems to be related to playing time more than anything else. Ever since Murphy has been in Albany/Charlotte, he has had to split time with someone in net and has never played the majority of a season because of this. The injury he sustained last year probably got in the way of that, too. The Checkers haven’t been able to guarantee Murphy the starting job while he has been there and I think this coming year would have been the same with Peters being re-signed and John Muse possibly being added to the team. This may have influenced Murphy’s decision to sign with HC Spartak Moscow of the KHL for next season.
The Hurricanes decided to qualify Murphy despite this, so he will stay in the organization once his contract in the KHL expires. This is a smart move by Carolina because Murphy is still very young (23) and the team is going to need to find a heir apparent to Cam Ward sooner or later. We don’t know if Murphy will be that guy just yet but he could be depending on how he develops in the coming years. Judging from his career totals, he tends to get better once he plays more games so I would have liked for him to spend another year in Charlotte but if he can find a starting job in Russia then that is fine, too. As long as he keeps improving and the Hurricanes can hang onto his rights to keep him in the system.
Murphy’s playing style reminds me a little bit of Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals in the sense that he’s pretty aggressive in net and has some very quick reflexes. It’s both a good and a bad thing because he can make some spectacular recovery saves but he also tends to put himself in bad positions as a result of overplaying some shooters. Goaltenders usually take a longer time to develop than others so the Hurricanes will know what they have in Murphy in another couple years. Projecting his full potential will be tough because he’s going to be playing in another league next year, but the thing to remember with goalie prospects is that the most you can hope for is for them to be quality starters.
You can drive yourself crazy searching for the next Jonathan Quick or Tim Thomas, so the best you can do is find someone who you think can be average in net and hope that he can play out of his mind for some period of time. Can the Hurricanes get that with Murphy? I can’t tell you but he appears to be on a pretty decent track and I wish him the best of luck in the KHL.