Goaltender Mike Murphy is practicing with the Checkers again, but for now, that’s all it is.
Following his first reappearance with the team on Tuesday, Murphy and coach Jeff Daniels said that, for the time being, both sides intended to gauge the goaltender’s ability to help the team this season, as he has not played competitively since his release from Russian club Spartak Moscow in November. No official contract of any kind, whether at the NHL level with Carolina, which still holds his rights as a restricted free agent, or at the AHL level with Charlotte, has been signed.
“We’re just waiting to see where he’s at,” said Daniels. “He hasn’t skated for a long time, but if he’s in game shape he can help us.”
With Murphy out of action since his stint in Russia, there’s no timetable as to when that might be. Daniels said that he was impressed with Murphy’s practice on Tuesday, but an overall comfort level must first be achieved.
“Today was like your first skate after the summer,” said Murphy. “When you haven’t skated in a while, you think first and then react, and you can’t do that when you play. You just have to be sharper, and that’s something that will come. Each day I’ll try to get better and more comfortable.”
Potentially working against him is the fact that Murphy had not been preparing to play again this season. After his release from Spartak, a subject on which he could provide no direct comment, the 24-year-old said that he was not “physically or mentally” prepared to join another team, even though he received offers from other teams overseas.
Part of that was due to weight loss – perhaps a bigger issue for a player who checked in at 5-foot-11 and 172 pounds last season – caused in part by Russia’s month-long training camp, longer practices and a difficult adjustment to local cuisine.
“I really wanted to come home, start working out and get my strength back,” said Murphy, who posted a 4.34 goals-against average and .877 save percentage in seven games with Spartak. “My agent and I had decided to call it a year.”
As such, he was not expecting the Hurricanes to call around 10 days ago.
“I thought I was still five months out (from next season’s training camp) and my year was done, but I’m going to work hard to be back and in shape,” he said.
The Carolina organization had expected Murphy to be in the fold all along, but the player instead chose to exercise his option to explore opportunities in Russia, joining former teammates Oskar Osala and Evgenii Dadonov as KHL players whose NHL future still lies with the Hurricanes for the time being.
Despite that, both sides downplayed any awkwardness surrounding the somewhat hasty reunion, accelerated in part when Cam Ward’s injury and Justin Peters’ subsequent promotion to the NHL weakened the organization’s depth at the position. Along with John Muse and Rob Madore, his return gave the Checkers three goalies at Tuesday’s practice.
“It feels good to be back with the guys,” said Murphy, who initially met with Daniels for dinner on Monday. “I’ve known a lot of them for a while, so there are some good buddies and even some fans I became friends with when I was here. That makes it a lot easier than joining a new team.”
“He knows three-quarters of the team and has played with those guys for the last two or three years,” said Daniels. “It’s also a pride thing where he wants to do well.”
The Checkers know that he can do just that, as he spent each of the last three seasons with Carolina’s AHL affiliate, including two with Charlotte, where he is still the franchise’s all-time leader in games played (76) and wins (39) by a goaltender. While playing most of that time as part of a tandem with either Justin Pogge or Peters, he posted a 2.63 goals-against average and .914 save percentage with three shutouts.
His breakout performance came during the Checkers’ run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2011 when he had a 2.57 goals-against average, .919 save percentage and one shutout after winning sole possession of the team’s starting role.
“He’s a very capable goalie and he’s proven that he that he can be effective over the years,” said Daniels. “He put us on his back in the playoffs a few years ago.”
With the team now looking to secure a postseason berth over the season’s final 12 games and make another such run, it appears they’ll give Murphy every chance to do so once again.
“There’s no risk to it,” said Daniels. “It can only help us.”