One doesn’t have to be a hockey expert to know that the Chicago Blackhawks have been struggling on the blue line the past few seasons. With stars like Duncan Keith taking up a large amount of cap space and declining in performance at the same time, the future looks bleak. However, 25-year-old Connor Murphy has been the silver lining to the Blackhawks’ struggling defense.
Since he returned from a back injury in early December, Murphy has become one of the team’s most reliable defensemen. Does he have what it takes to make it in the NHL for the long haul?
Time With the Coyotes
Murphy was drafted to the Phoenix Coyotes as the 20th overall pick in the 2011 NHL Draft. He played 258 games in a Coyotes sweater and tallied 13 goals and 36 assists with a plus/minus rating of minus-30. His record was far from consistent with a rating of plus-five in his rookie season and minus-27 the next. Murphy struggled with consistency during his first season in a Blackhawks sweater but has shown improvement this season.
He came to the Blackhawks in the summer of 2017 after Chicago traded Niklas Hjalmarsson to the Coyotes in exchange for Murphy and Laurent Dauphin. Unlike Murphy, Dauphin only played 33 games for the Rockford IceHogs, the AHL affiliate of the Blackhawks, before going back to the Coyotes organization. The trade is often thought to be a bust for the Blackhawks, but Murphy is determined to prove his critics wrong.
First Season With the Blackhawks
Murphy didn’t live up to expectations during his first season in a Blackhawks sweater. He tallied a total of two goals and twelve assists with a minus-three rating in 76 games. With strength on the blue line going downhill, it was clear that trading Hjalmarsson for Murphy wasn’t the smartest decision.
Fully aware of his poor performance, Murphy was determined to change that when the Blackhawks activated him off injured reserve in early December as he told the Chicago Sun-Times, “I definitely didn’t reach or show my potential in the first year here. Especially off the bat, it was [finding] a level of comfort to get used to the guys and get used to the team, and the way you play and different rules and minutes and roles you have. Those are things that, alongside a mixture of a bit of losing we had last year, it’s hard.” (from ‘Blackhawks’ Connor Murphy activated, eager to finally begin playing to potential’, Chicago Sun-Times – 12/08/18).
The Present and the Future
Since returning to the Blackhawks’ lineup, Murphy has tallied one goal and four assists with a rating of plus-five in 21 games. He is already showing signs of improvement, and he spoke about it with the Chicago Sun-Times, “I’ve slowly gotten better at some things and still have a lot of room to get where I want to be. It was definitely a growth period the first half of last year, but that was kind of expected, and it helped me to learn a lot. I definitely feel like I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable and adjusted to everyone here, too.” (from ‘Connor Murphy sticks his face in it, grows into sturdy defenseman for Blackhawks’, Chicago Sun-Times – 01/11/19).
Murphy has been a physical and reliable defenseman in his time with the Blackhawks this season, two things the Blackhawks definitely need to improve on the blue line. Unlike some of his fellow defensemen, Murphy is tough and isn’t afraid to play a more physical game alongside Carl Dahlstrom, whom he is often paired with.
Head coach Jeremy Colliton praised the pair to NBC Sports Chicago, “ Him (Dahlstrom) and Murphy have done a great job playing hard minutes against really good players. I view it as a huge positive – the progression they’ve shown. I think they’re a big part of why we’ve been getting a lot more points lately.”
Dahlstrom added, “Connor is a great guy and an even better player. I really like playing with him. I think both of our type of games really suit each other, really trying to break up plays early.”
Murphy chimed in, “It’s nice to take pride in playing defensive roles. I think I’ve had good chemistry with Dahlstrom and playing against some good forwards. We just take pride in defending hard.”
He gets his strong defenseman chops from his father, Gord Murphy, who played in the NHL for 14 seasons. Over his career, he played for the Philadelphia Flyers, Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers, and Atlanta Thrashers. He finished his career with 85 goals and 238 assists in 862 games.
He spoke about his father’s influence to USA Hockey, “He’s been great, and I think he’s been good to help coach me along the way,” Murphy said. “With him being an NHL coach and a player, he’s kind of seen it all, and he knows that because I’m younger, there are pointers he can give me that certain players aren’t getting, so that’s a bit of an advantage.”
Murphy’s contract runs through the 2021-22 season with a cap hit of $3.85 million. If he continues on his current route to strengthening the Blackhawks’ blue line, he could likely stick around for longer than the next few seasons.
Although he is still trying to improve himself, Murphy’s improvement over his past 21 games shows that he has the potential to be a reliable defenseman for the Blackhawks. Whether he lives up to his potential or not can only be answered with time. If he keeps playing as he has recently, he should have no problem.