On Monday morning, the news broke that the Pittsburgh Penguins had added another veteran to their lineup, acquiring defenseman Douglas Murray from the San Jose Sharks. Going back the other way was nothing off the current roster, but a significant payment in futurestwo second round picks. Was it a good trade for Pittsburgh, a team clearly gearing up for a Stanley Cup run, and if so, why would the Sharksa team desperately trying to hang on to the final playoff spot in the Westbe willing to make such a move?
The addition of Murray is an interesting one for Pittsburgh. On the positive side of the spectrum, they are adding a big, tough player with a ton of experience in both the regular season and playoffsa take-no-prisoners type who leads the San Jose blue line in both hits and blocked shots. But as there usually is, there is another side to thisas mentioned earlier, San Jose is a team fighting for their playoff lives, so there had to be a reason why they were willing to move out that kind of seemingly desirable player.
The reason is pretty straight forward: Murray is a shadow of what he used to be. He took a step backward last season, and seems to have taken another one this year.
The simplest statistic that illustrates this fact is how the Sharks fare in an average hour of five-on-five play with Murray on the ice versus off the ice. With Murray on the ice, the Sharks average 25 shots to the opposition's 33. With Murray off the ice the Sharks outshoot the other teams 30 to 28. That is a pretty massive swing, and it is particularly unimpressive because Murray's playing a depth rolehe ranks eighth among San Jose defensemen in even strength ice-time and isn't being asked to play a heavy role in the defensive zone. He has actually been on the ice for more offensive zone draws than defensive zone draws at even strength.
It is part of a recent trend with Murray: a steady decrease in responsibility, and a decrease in his ability to handle the assignment he is given. The following chart shows how his even-strength role has diminished in recent years, as well as how the results with him on the ice have fallen off.
The diminishing role of Douglas Murray
There was a time when Murray was facing the toughest available opponents and holding his owna significant achievement for any defenseman. His even strength ice-time has been diminishing, however. After a run as the #2 or #3 defenseman for the Sharks between 2009-11, Murray lost 40 seconds per game last season and fell more than two full minutes this year. The quality of competition he faces has slipped, toohe has fallen from top-pairing opposition to second-pairing opposition and finally to third-pairing opponents this year.
Unfortunately for the Sharks, the reduction in ice-time wasn't stopping the bleeding. Murray's Corsi number (a combination of shots, missed shots, and blocked shots for and against, adjusted for team strength) was excellent in those first two yearsjust slightly in the red relative to the team average in a very difficult role. But it fell sharply in 2011-12, and the downward trend has continued this season despite lessened responsibilities. Murray has a formidable reputation, and for good reason, but he simply hasn't been that player since 2010-11.
Another factor is Murray's contract status. As a pending unrestricted free agent, he is a pure rental player. Pittsburgh paid for a player they think can help them win in the here and now. There is no guarantee he continues with the team beyond the end of this season.
In light of all that, it is easy to see why San Jose would jump at the opportunity to move Murray, even without getting anything to help their current run. They had a pending unrestricted free agent who had proven incapable of handling even a third-pairing role with the club, and here was an Eastern Conference team willing to give them two decent draft picks in trade. The loss of Murray could reasonably be assumed to be a small one; in fact, if the Sharks so desire, they can almost certainly get a player for that same role in exchange for only one of the picks that they acquired from Pittsburgh. Even with the typically inflated prices for veterans around the trade deadline, this was a big overpay by the Penguins and general manager Doug Wilson would have been foolish not to take them up on their offer.
It is the kind of trade that should give hope to every team trying to offload a struggling veteran between now and the NHL trade deadline.
Jonathan Willis is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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