While he’s one of many players to experience improvement during his first few years as a professional, few have had their leaps forward as clearly defined as Mike Murphy.
The Checkers goaltender, now 22 and in his third year playing for the Carolina Hurricanes’ AHL affiliate, underwent what coach Jeff Daniels described as a “learning year” as a rookie backup with the Albany River Rats in 2009-10. The next year, he entered a timeshare with veteran Justin Pogge during the Checkers’ inaugural season, where he began to gain confidence.
However, Murphy said that it wasn’t until the team’s 2011 run to the Eastern Conference Final, during which he played 14 of the Checkers’ 16 games, posting a 2.57 goals-against average and .919 save percentage with one shutout, that he began to establish himself as a legitimate No.1 goaltender – a distinction he’s carried into this season.
“I’ve always believed in myself, but I think that last year I got people to believe in me as well,” he said “I feel like I’m a proven goalie in the league now and people know that when I go in there instead of wondering, ‘Who is this guy?’”
With that confidence in tow, Murphy has had a strong start to the new season, picking up five of the Checkers’ six victories to rank second in AHL wins. Additionally, his .937 save percentage ranks third in the league, and his 2.08 goals-against average ranks eighth. One of the few goalies on the planet who will admit to enjoying the shootout, he’s enjoyed success there as well, as one of just four goaltenders to stop all challengers he’s faced (5-5).
“He’s picked up where left off last year,” said Daniels. “He’s giving us a chance to win every game.”
Daniels, now in his third year as Murphy’s coach, has seen the goaltender’s progression firsthand.
“He’s matured and focused,” said Daniels. “You come into the pros wanting to prove you can do what you did in junior, but it doesn’t always happen right away.”
According to Murphy, who was the reigning Goaltender of the Year in all of Canadian junior hockey entering his rookie season as a pro, three years of working with Hurricanes assistant coach Tom Barrasso has been key to becoming a dominant goaltender once again.
“The goalie I was when I came in and the goalie I am this year are completely different. Night and day,” said Murphy, who Hurricanes scouts pegged as talented yet unorthodox at the time of his sixth-round selection in the 2008 draft. “Tom Barrasso added a lot of structure to my game that wasn’t there before. If you’re in the right spots, you can let your reflexes take over.
“It also comes down to practicing. In junior I didn’t go as hard, but now I know that if you have a good practice it will give you confidence that you can carry over into your next game.”
Murphy has had plenty of games lately, as he’s started each of the team’s last five contests due to an injury to fellow netminder Justin Peters. He’s twice made appearances on three consecutive nights during a Checkers schedule that’s been concentrated on weekend clusters.
While the workload can be taxing at times, especially with travel involved (“Thank goodness for the cold tub,” said Murphy), the opportunity to play every night is something he’s not about to pass up.
“Each game I was more excited than anything to get in there,” he said, referring to the team's most recent three-in-three set. “After the second game, coach came and asked me if I was ready to play, and I told him I was ready to play the next 70 if he let me.”
“He said he felt strong and wanted to go back in,” said Daniels. “He’s a competitive guy and wants to play as much as he can.”
Going into the season, Daniels’ plan was to split the starts between Murphy and the 25-year-old Peters, who spent all of last season in the NHL with the Hurricanes. That could again be the case as soon as this weekend, with Peters practicing with the team for just the second time since his Oct. 21 injury on Tuesday. Rookie John Muse is also still with the Checkers, though he has not appeared in a game since his recall last week.
That logjam and the health of Peters could present some interesting decisions for Daniels, who often laments the fact that he only has one net for two goaltenders. However, when one of those is an established AHL All-Star and the other could be well on his way based on his start, it’s a problem he likely won’t lose much sleep over.