As Connor Murphy has bounced around the Blackhawks’ blue line, from the right to the left and back, from the top pair to the second pair to the third pair to the press box and back, one thing has remained constant: Opponents don’t score much when he’s on the ice. Not since he got over his early-season struggles adapting to a new team and a new system.
Since Dec. 1, Murphy has been on the ice for just nine even-strength goals-against in 25 games. Brent Seabrook is next in that span with 15 goals-against in 27 games. For comparison, Gustav Forsling was on the ice for 20 goals-against in 19 games in that span — usually against tougher matchups.
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Seeing as how it’s the primary job of a defenseman to prevent goals, Murphy has been arguably the Hawks’ most reliable blue-liner. But he hasn’t been able to find a reliable spot in the lineup. He has been a healthy scratch three times in the last 13 games and has frequently changed partners. On Thursday night against the Stars, in another must-win scenario for the Hawks, he found himself back on the top pairing with Duncan Keith, with Jordan Oesterle pairing up with Michal Kempny.
Murphy’s not a big numbers guy — very few defensive defensemen are — and shrugged off his excellent possession numbers and analytics.
“I don’t think statistics are really a good judgment of anyone,” he said. “It’s more about how you fit in with how you’re helping the team. Really, at the end of the day, it’s up to you to play how you can and then it’s up to the [coaching] staff to decide what direction you’re going in. And if there are certain things that are wanted [out] of you that you’re not doing on a night-to-night basis, then your spot is in jeopardy. I don’t blame anyone or anything for ever being out of the lineup. I just look at parts of my game to try to be better in, and help my team. Because it’s hard losing, and it’s hard being out and losing.”
When Murphy was acquired last spring in the trade that sent rock-steady No. 2 defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson to Arizona, general manager Stan Bowman hoped he’d step in alongside Keith. But Murphy struggled early on as he got his feet wet in Joel Quenneville’s system.
Oddly enough, a switch to the left side — which he had never played — seemed to spark him, and he’s been solid on both sides ever since. Ideally, though, he’d have a set spot in the lineup rather than move around (and in and out) so often.
When discussing the season as a whole, Murphy said, “It’s not what I nor we wanted.” As for his individual play?
“I would say the same,” he said. “Making adjustments, being on a new team and then having spurts of being good and then spurts of being bad, probably. In order to be an impactful player, you’ve got to be good consistently. Individually, I need to be better. I think we all feel that we are where we are because of not competing and producing as we should.”
Murphy credited veterans Keith and Seabrook, along with Corey Crawford and the coaching staff, for making him a better player, and a better fit in the system. Quenneville said he has improved considerably since the start of the season. But as Murphy said, it’s up to him to make his stay on the top pairing a permanent one.
“He got back to where he needs to be, his game’s been a lot steadier,” Quenneville said. “That’s what you’re going to get from Murph. Be predictable, be dependable, and when you’re playing with [Keith], you’re going to get important minutes. That’ll be a good test.”
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