A five-game winning streak, like the one currently enjoyed by the Chicago Blackhawks, is going to put a shine on many aspects of the team.
And there are plenty segments of the team worthy of praise. Corey Crawford is still the Best Goalie in the Western Conference™ and should generate Vezina consideration by the season’s end. Patrick Kane is still scoring with the league’s best, and his pairing with Nick Schmaltz produces highlights on a nightly basis.
But one recently thriving part of this team has been quietly improving his play after a slow start to the season. And his name going unmentioned on broadcasts usually means he’s doing his job quite well.
Connor Murphy continues to excel on the Blackhawks blue line.
First off, the eye test for Murphy continues to produce passing results. There’s no hesitation in his game anymore, no false steps that leave him out of position or a misplaced stick that leaves a passing lane open. After a few healthy scratches earlier in the season, Murphy has been a mainstay on the Blackhawks blue line (it’s almost like a new player in a new system needed time to develop. Whoda thunk it?!). And he’s shown versatility in the last week. When injuries to Jan Rutta and Cody Franson forced a lineup shuffle, Murphy flipped back to the right side without it affecting his play.
Pick your possession metric, and the numbers look good for Murphy. In the last 20 games, Murphy has posted a CF% over 50 percent 17 times. His season-long CF% (56.84) is 5.65% above the team rate. Among Blackhawks defensemen, his expected goals-for percentage is 9.01% above the team rate, according to Corsica.
For a visual representation of Murphy’s rank on the team, look at the chart below from the always-excellent charts compiled by Sean Tierney:
And just for fun: take a look at this chart again, and find the player that Murphy was traded for in the offseason. Hint: it’s in the “bad” quadrant.
This is not a shot at Niklas Hjalmarsson, whose contributions to three Stanley Cup victories were vital. But the miles Hjalmarsson’s tires were especially brutal, and he was showing signs of regression. While this stark contrast in possession numbers is affected, in part, by the overall fortunes of the two teams involved, it also highlights the shrewdness of the trade made by general manager Stan Bowman in the offseason. He was able to identify a depreciating asset and flip it for a younger asset with the potential for future development and the added bonus of cost certainty for a cap-strapped Chicago team. Those are the kinds of trades that extend championship windows. Bowman isn’t flawless, but the early returns on this deal are all positive.