ROCHESTER – A season after spending nearly two months in Buffalo and playing 19 NHL games, Sabres prospect Brett Murray stayed put in the AHL nearly all year.
Murray, 24, joined the Sabres just once, skating in the pregame warm-up Dec. 10 before getting scratched. They returned him to the Americans following the game.
The Sabres, of course, have beefed up their forward depth and prospect pool over the last year. They also remained remarkably healthy up front in 2022-23, meaning they rarely summoned forwards from Rochester.
So Murray, who set career-high offensive totals this season and began killing penalties, spent just one day in the big leagues.
Considering his unusual career path – “It’s been quite a weird road, a lot of adversity,” he said – he believes he’s equipped to handle the disappointment.
“I try not to let it affect me whatsoever,” Murray told the Times Herald prior to scoring a power-play goal Wednesday as the Amerks defeated the Toronto Marlies 8-4 and advanced to the Eastern Conference final.
“There was some dips, there was a lot of talks that as a staff we had to have with all four of those guys about it, right?” he said in Blue Cross Arena. “I think at heart, Brett Murray knows he’s the best he’s ever been in his career.”
He added: “You have to cling onto those moments of hope that you know you’re a better player than you were a year ago when you played 19 games in the NHL, and I think he’s done a pretty good job of that with some of those small dips.”
The 6-foot-5, 228-pound Murray has evolved over his four seasons in Rochester. When Appert arrived in 2020-21, he said he did not think of him as a penalty killer.
“He’s the best he’s ever been in his career,” he said. “Most consistent, most physically engaged. Look at what he does. He’s first line, physical presence, power play, penalty kill.”
Over the past two years, Appert said Murray has morphed from a “skilled forward that’s big to being a power forward with skill.”
“That sounds similar but it’s vastly different,” he explained. “He imposes his physicality and his will on our opponents almost every night. Not where more than often two-plus years ago it was his skill and his hands and his mind that might have a good night but other stuff was inconsistent. So as he’s done those things, he’s improved his overall game, he’s improved his defensive game, his skating’s improved.
“He’s worked a lot on his skating and getting that extra step has allowed him to become a better defensive player, be a better forechecker, be a better penalty killer.”
Murray has also developed into a better scorer, registering 23 goals and 49 points in 71 regular-season games this season. He has upped his production in the Calder Cup Playoffs, scoring three goals and eight points in eight outings.
He experienced an unconventional route to becoming a Rochester mainstay and first-line talent.
Former Sabres general manager Tim Murray (no relation) drafted him in the fourth round in 2016, 99th overall. Brett Murray left Penn State after a season and a half in 2018 and returned to junior, where he led the United States Hockey League in scoring.
But the Sabres’ next regime did not offer Murray an entry-level contract. Instead, after invitations to development and rookie camp, he signed an AHL deal.
Having joined the Amerks in 2019-20, he’s their longest continuously tenured player. He earned an NHL contract following his rookie season. He responded by leading the Amerks in scoring and playing his first two NHL games during the COVID-19 shortened 2020-21 campaign.
“It’s different, for sure,” Murray said of his career path. “But I’m on my second NHL contract and third pro contract. So I can’t complain. I appreciate where I am.”
Murray also appreciates Appert’s belief.
“He’s an unbelievable coach,” he said. “We see eye to eye, for sure. He knows what kind of player I am and he knows the player I need to be to have success. And he’s really molded me and helped me grow not only as a player, but as a person. We’re great friends off the ice, so it definitely really helps.”
Murray can become a restricted free agent this offseason. Given his production, the Sabres will likely give him a qualifying offer. But right now, there doesn’t appear to be a place for him on the NHL roster next season.
When the Sabres acquired another big winger, Jordan Greenway, prior to the trade deadline in March, it pushed Murray further down the depth chart.
If they try to send him to Rochester again next season, he could attract attention on waivers.
“We talk to him all the time about yes, you’re auditioning to make the Sabres and you’re clawing trying to make the Sabres,” Appert said. “But there’s also 31 other teams that you’re auditioning for.”