BUFFALO – The emotion of the moment overwhelmed Brett Murray, and with the home crowd roaring in approval of his first NHL fight, the normally subdued Sabres rookie did something uncharacteristic.
As the 6-foot-5, 228-pound Murray skated off the KeyBank Center ice last Wednesday, he implored the fans to make more noise, emphatically raising his arms and yelling, “Let’s go!”
“Watching it back, I think I blacked out for a little bit skating off the ice, I didn’t realize what I did,” Murray said following Tuesday’s practice. “I mean, I did but there was a lot of emotion from the fans and I tried to give them that energy right back.”
Murray, 23, doesn’t fight often. In 108 pro games, he has dropped the gloves just three times, according to hockeyfights.com. But after watching the New Jersey Devils’ Jonas Siegenthaler hit popular Sabres winger Kyle Okposo into the boards from behind, Murray immediately challenged him.
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“Kyle Okposo’s one of our captains,” said Murray, who received 17 minutes in penalties his actions. “He would’ve done the same for me, for sure. I mean, the hit, it didn’t look great to me. We were losing, I think we needed a little bit of a spark, too. So just sticking up for my teammates, I think that’s part of my role that I have up here with my size.”
Right now, just 17 games into Murray’s NHL career, that role is evolving as he tries to establish an identity, according to Sabres coach Don Granato.
It might occasionally involve fighting, but the Sabres are interested in seeing the hulking winger utilize his size and skill like he did early in Saturday afternoon’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Boston Bruins.
Murray created winger Vinnie Hinostroza’s first-period goal by keeping the puck in the offensive zone near the left boards and holding onto it before dishing it to his linemate in the slot.
“That particular moment he had confidence and he hung onto the puck,” Granato said. “He extended possession. He … was able to see that he had time and space. They backed off, Boston backed off, and he didn’t get rid of the puck. So there he made a very confident play. I still see with him ebbs and flows of confidence.”
Granato said the Sabres are trying to make Murray, who began his pro career on an AHL contract two years ago, see himself as an NHL player and “own more moments.”
Saturday’s assist “was a moment that he owned and he executed,” Granato said.
Murray, a fourth-round pick in 2016, 99th overall, has transformed his game and adapted before. In doing so, he beat long odds to make it to Buffalo.
After leaving Penn State in 2018, he returned to his junior team, the Youngstown Phantoms, and scored 41 goals in 62 games. But the Sabres’ old regime needed to see more than an ex-college player dominating in a teenager’s league.
They challenged him to improve his conditioning, and when he started changing, they rewarded him by inviting him to development and rookie camps. He received an AHL contract in 2019-20 and parlayed a strong rookie campaign with the Rochester Americans into an entry-level NHL deal.
Last season, Murray led the Amerks in points and earned his first recall to the Sabres, playing the final two games.
Earlier this year, he was the first forward the Sabres recalled, a sign he was knocking on the door. Then in late November, shortly after Granato and general manager Kevyn Adams watched him score twice in Rochester, they summoned him again.
Over the last five weeks, Murray has earned regular duty, playing 14 straight games.
Murray said he must keep reminding himself he cracked the NHL for a reason and he can stay put.
“It’s just slowly building confidence and being consistent with that ability to believe in myself,” said Murray, who has compiled two goals and six points in 15 games this season. “I’m still a young player, I’m still learning from the older players in the locker room. They’re helping me out tremendously, leaning on them. I feel myself growing as a player even in the last month of being here.”
Granato said given Murray’s path to Buffalo, it’s probably a surprise he made it to the NHL.
“We want to get past the surprise that he’s here, is in essence of what we’re talking about,” Granato said. “He’s here and (we’re) trying to get him to own it and he is going in that direction. And that’s how he’s going to realize his potential at this level. But, yes, (his path is) in the category of unconventional.”
Murray said: “Hasn’t been the easiest path, for sure, whether it’s been different GMs, learning my game or different coaches learning my game and trusting in me to play at this level. It …helped me grow, helped me learn the game and give me more confidence.”