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Brett Murray using his size, skill to show he could be part of Sabres' young core

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Brawlers

Buffalo Sabres left winger Brett Murray (57) brawls with New Jersey Devils defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler (71) during the first period.

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Brett Murray had to watch the video again to remember exactly how he exhorted the crowd of 11,511 inside KeyBank Center on Dec. 29.

Irate over a hit from behind on alternate captain Kyle Okposo, Murray dropped New Jersey Devils defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler to the ice with a flurry of right-handed punches. On his way back to the bench, Murray rolled up the sleeves of his Buffalo Sabres jersey and signaled to the fans to continue to roar in approval.

“Yeah, they loved it,” beamed Murray. “There were a lot of emotions. Watching it back, I think I blacked out for a little bit skating off the ice. I didn’t realize what I did. I mean, I did, but there was a lot of emotion from the fans, and I tried to give them that energy right back.”

There’s so much more to Murray’s game than the occasional fight, as the 6-foot-5 power forward showed Saturday in Boston. Murray, 23, forced a turnover by checking Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy along the left boards, carried the puck into the left circle and found Vinnie Hinostroza in the slot for a primary assist on the Sabres’ opening goal in a 4-3 overtime loss.

The sequence illustrated how Murray has learned to use his blend of size and skill to make plays at the highest level. A fourth-round draft choice in 2016, Murray has been a recent fixture in the Sabres lineup and has two goals with six points in 15 NHL games this season.

Yet Murray must still be reminded that he belongs.

“There, he made a very confident play,” Granato said, referring to Murray’s assist in Boston. “I still see with him ebbs and flows of confidence. He's a guy that hasn’t had a lot of time in the NHL. We’re trying to get him to see himself more as an NHL player. And, you know, ‘I own it and own this.’ And that was a moment that he owned, and he executed and we need him to own more moments.”

Murray knows how fragile opportunity can be. It wasn’t long ago that his future with the Sabres seemed uncertain. At 20 years old, Murray scored 41 goals for the Youngstown Phantoms of the United States Hockey League, and following the 2018-19 season, he decided to not attend Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Still unsure about Murray as a prospect, the Sabres agreed to sign the raw forward to a contract in September 2019, but with one caveat: it was an American Hockey League deal. Murray was drafted by a different general manager and scouting director.

The uncertainty didn’t impact Murray’s play on the ice. Across the next two seasons, Murray totaled 18 goals and 44 points in 82 games for the Amerks. He earned an entry-level contract and, finally, an audition in the NHL in May.

Equipped with lessons from his two NHL games last season, Murray was dominant at the Sabres Prospects Challenge in September and showed in training camp that he was on the precipice of a spot in Buffalo’s lineup.

“Everyone is an unbelievable player at this level,” Murray said. “I scored a lot of goals in the USHL level just because maybe I was an older player, and I had the experience. But there are players (in the NHL) that are paid to do that a lot more than me. Just adapting to the style of play that was going to give me success. There’s not a whole lot of bigger guys. I believe I can skate well for my size, too, and that’s a good combo, I think.”

Murray’s skating stride allowed him to play on a line with fast, talented centers Dylan Cozens and Peyton Krebs. Murray also has earned a spot on the power play, selflessly standing in the line of fire to prevent the opposing goalie from seeing the puck. It was Murray who screened New York Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov and jarred the puck loose on Kyle Okposo’s power-play goal last week on Long Island.

More importantly, the Sabres are a threat to score when Murray is on the ice. According to Evolving-Hockey.com, Murray ranks sixth among Buffalo forwards in on-ice shot quality at 5-on-5.

The organization doesn’t have another player with Murray’s combination of size and skill. With fellow prospects Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka still awaiting a full-time NHL opportunity, this is Murray’s chance to carve out a role this season and beyond.

“His path here, it would probably be a surprise that he’s here,” Granato said. “And we want to get past the surprise that he's here, is an essence of what we're talking about. … But he's good enough to be here. There's no question. He's earned it. ... We think there's a lot more in there that he can give us and do for us."

Murray, though, wasn’t viewed as a member of the young core when the season began. Unlike Quinn, Peterka or Mattias Samuelsson, Murray wasn’t a high draft choice and could have been among the seven Sabres draft choices from 2016 to depart. His ascent might be considered unlikely by some, but he is the latest example of a development plan that’s working.

“When we got hired here, Casey Fitzgerald, Brett Murray, those guys weren’t thought of as guys who were likely headed to the National Hockey League,” Rochester coach Seth Appert said. “The work they put in to earn that, you’re just a little more excited and a little more proud because it wasn’t maybe a given.”

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News Sports Reporter

I've covered the Sabres and National Hockey League for The Buffalo News since November 2018. My previous work included coverage of the Pittsburgh Pirates and University of Pittsburgh athletics for DKPittsburghSports.com.

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