Connor Murphy took a step forward in his development last season and the Chicago Blackhawks will need him to elevate his game even further in 2019-20.
As we approach the 2019-20 season, the Chicago Blackhawks are hoping to have improved their defensive woes from a year ago.
With a group of defensemen that currently includes two veterans nearing the end of their respective careers and two new faces, 26-year-old Connor Murphy will be the X-Factor.
The pressure is on for Murphy, so we will have to wait and see if he’s up for the challenge. If he can pick up where he left off last season, the Blackhawks will be in good shape next season.
Connor Murphy in 2018-19
In his sixth season in the league, and second with the Blackhawks, Connor Murphy played in only 52 games after missing the first two months of the season due to a back injury.
Once in the lineup, he played an average of just under 20 minutes a game, putting up 5 goals and 8 assists for a total of 13 points.
Where Murphy was most effective didn’t necessarily pop off of the score sheet, but was still extremely valuable. He finished the season with 119 hits, putting him at second-most by a Blackhawks defenseman.
Along with his physical play, Murphy blocked 91 shots which were the fourth-most by a Blackhawks defenseman last season (data courtesy Natural Stat Trick Blackhawks defense).
He was also used a lot on the penalty kill, playing the third-most minutes by a defenseman.
Blackhawks’ Top-4 Defensemen:
Duncan Keith – 82 GP, 1887.43 TOI
Erik Gustafsson – 79 GP, 1784.18 TOI
Brent Seabrook – 78 GP, 1489.55 TOI
Connor Murphy – 52 GP, 1013.41 TOI
(Data Courtesy Natural Stat Trick)
2019-20 Defensive Pairing Projections
Duncan Keith and Erik Gustafsson can be slated in as the top pair with a permanent marker, but much speculation has been made about what the second and third pairings will look like.
Some Blackhawks writers have projected Murphy and de Haan as the second pair, leaving Brent Seabrook and Olli Maatta as the third pair, but others anticipate Murphy and Maatta being the number two pair. In both cases, Murphy will be relied on to anchor the second pair.
Assuming Gustafsson continues his strong play from last season, we know what to expect from the top pair.
Keith may not be as effective as he once was, but he is still an incredible skater who recovers quickly and knows what to do in his own end.
Gustafsson will continue to improve defensively and will provide offense while also being responsible for running the power play.
The biggest question mark on defense lies with the third pair. Many will wonder just how effective Brent Seabrook can be and whether or not Olli Maatta will return to his impressive play of two seasons ago with the Pittsburgh Penguins, when he netted 7 goals and dished out 22 assists for a total of 29 points (data courtesy Hockey-Reference Olli Maatta).
Seabrook will most likely spend time throughout the season watching games from the press box as his minutes will be managed tightly to keep him fresh.
In addition, Seabrook has never been the smoothest skater, and as the season progresses, it will only get worse.
Just as concerning, Maatta spent over a month on the injured reserve list last season and his play suffered when he was inserted back in the lineup.
Both Seabrook and Maatta may struggle in the role of shutdown pair defenseman due to these reasons.
With a proven top pair playing in offensive situations, and concerns surrounding Seabrook and Maatta, the Blackhawks are hoping they have a dominant shutdown pair in Connor Murphy and Calvin de Haan.
Connor Murphy’s Importance
After two seasons with the Blackhawks, it’s known that Connor Murphy is not expected to put up a lot of offense, which is just fine.
His greatest assets are his defensive abilities; maintaining a close gap, taking away time and space, and being physical in his own end.
New Blackhawk, Calvin de Haan, has proven his worth as a shutdown defenseman, finishing the 2018-19’ season with the ninth most takeaways by an NHL defenseman and the thirteenth most hits.
Murphy and de Haan can be an extremely effective second pair, but there are still a few questions that remain.
The major concern with de Haan is his ability to recover from a recent injury. He took a skate blade just below his right eye in March of last season and is working hard to be in the opening night lineup for the Blackhawks.
With the uncertainty of de Haan’s availability to start the season, Murphy is left with the most responsibility of any Blackhawks defenseman to stabilize the much needed shut down pair.
When called upon, seventh and eighth defenseman Slater Koekkoek and Carl Dahlstrom are both competent players, but both lack consistency to be an everyday NHL defenseman.
If one of these two is paired with Murphy or placed on the third pair, much of the responsibility will be given to Murphy to play important minutes against the opponent’s top lines.
There is definitely a chance that one or both of them see time with the Blackhawks this season, but they both play a similar offensive style and will need much grooming with the Rockford Icehogs to improve defensively.
They will need to be paired with an experienced and defensively sound partner; you guessed it, Connor Murphy.
Connor Murphy is the most crucial piece in the Blackhawks’ pursuit to decreasing the number of goals they give up, and ultimately, landing a spot back in the playoffs. Go ‘Hawks.