With Brent Seabrook out with an injury and Duncan Keith seemingly permanently paired — on and off the ice — with Adam Boqvist, the Blackhawks have needed another defenseman to step into a mentor role.
Enter Connor Murphy.
Although Murphy is still a couple of weeks shy of his 27th birthday and only 2.5 seasons into his Hawks tenure, his steady, reliable defense and warm, approachable personality has made him a natural fit for the role.
The game Sunday against the Blues marked Murphy’s eighth in a row paired with either rookie call-up Lucas Carlsson (before his concussion Thursday) or newcomer Nick Seeler.
And despite the extra pressure associated with having such raw partners, Murphy has embraced the role.
“I’ve been in those situations, coming to a new team or just coming in at a young age,” Murphy said recently. “I know what it’s like . . . trying to gain ground with an organization and learn from the team and how it plays.”
Seeler is only a few months younger than Murphy, but he was paired with him immediately — in the locker room and on the ice — when he was claimed off waivers from the Wild in February.
A month later, Seeler made consecutive appearances for the first time Friday and Sunday and said he feels acclimated to the Hawks’ significantly different defensive system and welcomed by the rest of the team. Murphy’s friendship has been a big reason why.
“He’s easy to play with and plays hard and is a smart player,” Seeler said. “We’ve been working well when we’ve been playing together, and I can run any questions by him because he’s been here longer than I have. I’ve had fun playing with him.”
Seeler was called on to make those consecutive appearances only because of Carlsson’s concussion, which interrupted an impressive five-game stint to begin his NHL career.
Carlsson’s absence was quite noticeable Friday against the Red Wings, as the Hawks struggled with the breakout passes he quickly had established as his forte. Those made him a seemingly perfect partner for Murphy, who ranks second among Hawks defensemen in shot attempts allowed but last in exit-success rate from the defensive zone.
“He’s just telling me to keep it simple and play my game,” Carlsson said before his injury. “[He’s helpful], mostly in the D-zone. That’s where I’ve got to improve the most, and he’s really good defensively.”
Murphy agreed he has adopted different strategies to help integrate both new defensemen into the team.
“[Seeler is] around my age and has played for a little bit, so there isn’t anything that’s that new for him in the NHL,” Murphy said. “It’s more just the odd time a play will happen in a game that we might do differently than they did in Minnesota.
“For [Carlsson], he’s played in Rockford and knows how things run and how things work with us here. It’s more just talking on the bench, communicating after certain shifts, to keep momentum going in certain games.”
That mentorship has been invaluable for the Hawks, who were already young entering the season and have lost several veterans to season-ending injuries since.
In their steads, Murphy has been asked to handle more than 21 minutes of ice time per game, plus a large leadership role. He has juggled both admirably.
“We have a lot of young guys that are trying to find their way in the league,” coach Jeremy Colliton said Friday. “So it’s important that our older guys help. Whether that’s leading by example with their play on the ice or just a word here or there, it makes a big difference.”