Blackhawks will rely on Connor Murphy more than ever in Seth Jones’ absence

Murphy averaged 23:30 of ice time in the four games Jones missed last year. With Jones now out four to six weeks, the longtime Hawks mainstay again becomes probably the team’s best defenseman.

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Connor Murphy makes a move with the puck.

Connor Murphy will be heavily relied upon by the Blackhawks during Seth Jones’ injury absence.

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

In some ways, it’s remarkable that Connor Murphy is still on the Blackhawks.

The five-plus years since his arrival in the Niklas Hjalmarsson trade have been some of the most chaotic in franchise history, but he has weathered it all.

Murphy has seen three coaches standing behind the bench, two general managers watching from above and 114 other players appearing in at least one game. He has been through a couple of jarring reverses in organizational philosophy and several massive renovations to the roster around him.

Yet Murphy not only remains a Hawk — he’s the third-longest-tenured player on the team and could be the longest-tenured by season’s end if Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews depart — he’s still pretty much the same player he has always been for them.

The 29-year-old Ohioan certainly leans toward a defensive defenseman role, but he does chip in occasional offense with at least 10 points in every season.

He blocks shots, delivers hits, breaks up passes, defends the blue line, holds up on the penalty kill and handles sizable workloads. And he’s a valuable voice of reason in the locker room, if not the most outspoken guy.

In other words, Murphy isn’t elite at anything but is pretty good at everything. That’s a recipe for consistency in the NHL, and Murphy has certainly exemplified consistency.

But for the next four to six weeks, the Hawks might need Murphy to find some elite play within himself.

In the wake of Seth Jones’ thumb injury, he’s probably the best defenseman the team has. The Hawks put Jones on injured reserve Tuesday and called up Alec Regula in a corresponding move.

“[Connor is] a calm, steady guy [who] gives you his all every night,” coach Luke Richardson said. “We need him right now especially. He’s going to have a little more responsibility in minutes. But he’s always in great shape — he has been the best in camp the last two years in physical condition — so he should be able to handle that.”

When Jones missed four games with COVID-19 last January, Murphy was thrust into a similar position.

In those four games, he averaged 23:30 of ice time — in which the Hawks surprisingly went 3-0-1 — but struggled to stay afloat possession-wise, finishing with a 38.3% scoring-chance ratio.

Murphy downplayed the extra pressure Jones’ absence puts on him, noting he’s technically still on the second defensive pair alongside Jarred Tinordi, while Jack Johnson and Jake McCabe form the first pair.

Johnson logged 24:20, McCabe 23:33, Murphy 21:26 and Tinordi 17:55 of ice time Sunday in the Hawks’ first game without Jones, although it wouldn’t be surprising to see Murphy start leading that category soon.

“It might add a little more load on power-play guys who play those minutes that he does,” Murphy said. “But other than that, a lot of us stayed in our same routines.

“[Seth is] a special talent, and he makes such a big difference when he’s out there for us. It’ll be a big challenge for us defensemen to step up and fill that void and make sure we’re playing our best.”

Kevin Dean, the Hawks’ new defense-focused assistant coach, has worked with Murphy to improve his stick usage in particular, helping him take greater advantage of his above-average reach with poke checks and the like.

Complicating things further, though, is the fact that Murphy still isn’t completely healthy and pain-free after missing much of training camp with a back injury.

Murphy joked that there’s “always something sometimes,” and considering the concussion he suffered in March and the two pucks that hit his face during the first week of the season, he’s not wrong about that. He has missed some practices lately for continued maintenance.

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