Analysis

Is Connor Murphy having a quietly good season for the Chicago Blackhawks?

By Juliana Nikac
CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 07: Connor Murphy #5 of the Chicago Blackhawks looks down the ice in the second period against the Calgary Flames at the United Center on January 7, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. The Calgary Flames defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 4-3. (Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 07: Connor Murphy #5 of the Chicago Blackhawks looks down the ice in the second period against the Calgary Flames at the United Center on January 7, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. The Calgary Flames defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 4-3. (Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images) /
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After a rocky start with the Chicago Blackhawks last season and an injury that sidelined him for three months, has Connor Murphy quietly emerged as a top defender in a struggling group of blueliners?

*all statistics are from Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference*

As everyone already knows, the Chicago Blackhawks aren’t very good when it comes to defense. The core of the blueliners has aged and been traded away in hopes of acquiring players who are younger, faster, and cost-controlled.

Despite having his struggles so far throughout his career with the ‘Hawks, Connor Murphy may have solidified himself as a reliable defender in a struggling group. That may not say much considering how awful the defense has actually been this season, but Murphy’s improvements are visible beyond the statistics.

Murphy was shipped to Chicago in 2017 with a prospect in the Niklas Hjalmarsson trade that nearly everyone despised at the time. Many fans of the Blackhawks had no idea what the team received in that deal and were mostly frustrated coming off a first-round exit in the playoffs and dealing Artemi Panarin to Columbus to take Brandon Saad back.

During his time with the Arizona Coyotes, Connor Murphy put up 13 goals and 36 assists for 49 points in 258 games. Throughout some brutal years where the team never made the playoffs, he had a 46.0 Corsi-for percentage and averaged around 19 minutes of time-on-ice per game.

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In his first season with the Chicago Blackhawks, the 24-year-old struggled to find consistent ice time and seemed to not live up to the expectations that he would immediately step into the role Hjalmarsson previously held. He did play in 76 games and tallied 14 points, just three below his career high of 17 he hit in both 2015-2016 and 2016-2017. He blocked 101 shots, the lowest total of his career for a season where he played more than 50 games. Additionally, he also had the best possession statistics (53.5% Corsi-for and 52.7% Fenwick-for) among defenders who played more than 50 games with the Blackhawks. Both of those statistics were career-bests for Murphy.

So maybe Joel Quenneville had just been hard on the new guy last season. We all knew he was definitely not a fan of what general manager Stan Bowman pulled on draft day in 2017. He also had a pretty consistent track record of not giving players equal opportunity (i.e. Michal Kempny and Vinnie Hinostroza) and they’ve now found success elsewhere.

Unfortunately for Murphy, he had a rough start to the 2018-2019, much like the rest of the team, thanks to a back injury that sidelined him from training camp through the first two months. But since the start of his season on December 9, Connor Murphy has been one of the least noticeable defensemen on the ice for the Chicago Blackhawks and Jeremy Colliton has relied on him to be a top defender many times.

Believe it or not, that’s a very good thing. We call out guys like Erik Gustafsson and Gustav Forsling on the regular for their defensive errors, and rightly so. On a team that is so bad at keeping the puck out of their own net and giving up high-danger chances left and right, players can’t be making huge errors such as blatant giveaways and turnovers in their own zone.

It’s a rare occurrence for Murphy to do such a thing. I don’t have all the game footage from this season, but I can’t remember the last time he made a poor play that led to a goal.

Obviously, something should be said about how many chances he’s allowed when he’s on the ice. At 5-on-5, Murphy has a 46.68 Corsi-for percentage (CF-CA is 604-690), 44.77% scoring chances for, and 38.79% high-danger scoring chances for.

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That doesn’t sound great, and it’s not at all. But keep in mind he’s also only played 41 games this season, all of which have come during a stretch of time where the team, as a whole, has been terrible defensively (despite all the winning they’ve been doing).

Since Connor Murphy’s first game on December 9, the Chicago Blackhawks are 27th in Corsi-for percentage (47.13) and 29th in Fenwick-for percentage (46.65) at 5-on-5. They’re also dead last in scoring chances against (1071) and high-danger chances against (492) at 5-on-5, as well.

So yes, his analytics haven’t been out-of-this-world fantastic, but most of this team has awful advanced stats. That’s kind of what happens when your team isn’t all that good. It also doesn’t help that Murphy’s been paired with Carl Dahlstrom most of the time this year, and his stats are also abysmal.

Despite all this, we can’t overlook the offensive production of Murphy this season. He has 14 points (four goals and eight assists) in 41 games, which puts him on pace for 15 points this year. Over 82 games, he’d have around 23 or 24 points, which would be a career high for him. His current pace of 0.29 points per game is a career-high number, as well. Also, if you care about plus/minus rating at all, he’s a team-leading plus-16 this season. 69 blocked shots isn’t half-bad either.

Now that I’ve tossed everything at you, what can we gather from all of this information?

  1. We don’t have a definite conclusion of what kind of player Connor Murphy is. The only conclusion we can come to is that he’s definitely not a Bobby Orr or Erik Karlsson. He won’t be putting up 72 points in a season any time soon. (But weirder things have happened)
  2. His advanced statistics this season are skewed due to how brutal the team is and the players he’s been paired with.
  3. Murphy won’t develop any more than he already has. He’s 25 years old and will be 26 in just over a week. What you see is what you get with him. If you already like him, you’ll be satisfied with his play. If you don’t currently care for his style of play, you probably never will.
  4. Don’t expect Connor Murphy to be the savior of the Chicago Blackhawks.

Everyone is allowed to draw their own conclusions from what they see every game as well as looking at the stats. That’s a perk we have as sports fans.

What is my conclusion? Connor Murphy is somewhere between what we see via the eye test and the statistics from this season. He’s not as bad as his 2018-2019 analytics show, but he’s not stellar either. Murphy is an above-average defender compared to the rest of the defensemen on the Chicago Blackhawks. He’s also not as superb as some have been saying he is.

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If you were hoping to discover something out of this world about Murphy’s play this year, I’m very sorry. I still like Connor Murphy and I believe he is a valuable and essential member of this team. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook aren’t getting any younger and their play is rapidly declining. Hopefully, the Chicago Blackhawks can find some support for Murphy if they’re going to keep him here for the rest of his career.

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