Connor Murphy still learning, still aiming for a major role with Blackhawks

Connor Murphy knows what kind of defenseman he wants to be and what kind of role he wants to have.

“More of a defensive matchup guy,” he said. “A guy who can consistently play against the other team’s top line or top two lines and be relied upon to shut down good five-on-five play. A guy who can be a little edge and hard to play against and maybe frustrate the other guys a little bit.”

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Of course, the Blackhawks had a guy like that. His name was Niklas Hjalmarsson, and he was a huge reason why they won three Stanley Cups. Then he was traded to the Coyotes. For Murphy.

Connor Murphy has spent the past six games on Duncan Keith's pairing. (AP Photo)

But Murphy isn’t Hjalmarsson, nor was he ever expected to be. General manager Stan Bowman never told him he’d be replacing Hjalmarsson. Coach Joel Quenne-ville never told him he’d be playing 22 minutes a night. Even Murphy did his best to not think of himself as Hjalmarsson’s replacement because Hjalmarsson isn’t all that replaceable.

“You can’t think of it that way,” Murphy said. “There’s different stuff that plays into trades that you don’t realize.”

But nearly nine months later, Hjalmarsson’s old spot is still up for grabs. Whether it’s as Duncan Keith’s partner on the first pairing or the top guy on a second shutdown pairing — two roles Hjalmarsson filled well — the Hawks have yet to find a true No. 2 defenseman. Maybe it’s something Bowman can find in free agency, but with seven NHL-caliber defensemen already signed for next season, it more likely will have to come from within.

And while Murphy isn’t Hjalmarsson, he — like everybody else — wants Hjalmarsson’s minutes.

“Everyone’s goal is definitely to play as much as they can and to earn top minutes and earn top spots and top matchups against other top lines,” Murphy said. “There are definitely guys in here that have proven at certain points of the year that they can do that.”

The key phrase there is “at certain times.” Jordan Oesterle had a nice run as Keith’s partner, but his play slipped last month. Gustav Forsling and Jan Rutta looked like a shutdown pair in November before stumbling. And Murphy has spent the last six games as Keith’s partner, twice topping 20 minutes.

Nobody has seized the spot for good. Murphy has the best opportunity now simply because he’s in that role. But while he has improved significantly as he has adapted to the Hawks’ system — “In the first part of the year, I felt a little bit like a fish out of water with certain scenarios and systems plays,” Murphy said — he hasn’t fared well with Keith, who usually draws the toughest assignments.

Without Keith on his pairing, Murphy has some of the best five-on-five numbers on the team, with the Hawks outshooting, out-chancing and outscoring opponents with Murphy on the ice. But when paired with Keith, Murphy’s numbers nosedive. In the 140 minutes of five-on-five play with Keith and Murphy together, the Hawks are underwater in terms of possession and have been outscored 8-1.

“He’s had some good stretches in games,” Quenneville said. “Some games, like our team game, [we’d like him to be] more crisp and predictable possession-wise, but that’s been a team thing.”

It’s hard to pinpoint where Murphy is in his development — he’s only 24, but this is his fifth NHL season. He believes his ceiling is still much higher, and he’s still learning every day. And with that No. 2 spot still up for grabs, Murphy still wants it.

“It’s hard looking at the schedule and knowing we only have 12 games left,” he said. “I want to keep playing and keep evolving and keep building with this team. Hopefully, I can continue to build on this because I want to be able to learn more things defensively and to be a guy that can be relied upon more consistently.”

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com