There’s a very short list of active NHL defenseman with three Stanley Cup rings, and the Chicago Blackhawks traded one of them on the morning of the 2017 NHL Draft, shipping Niklas Hjalmarsson to the Arizona Coyotes for Connor Murphy and Laurent Dauphin. It was a high-risk move by Hawks GM Stan Bowman to send away one of the team’s most consistent performers of the last decade.
But if the Hawks can find a way to turn Murphy into a top-four defenseman, it will go down as the type of shrewd, savvy moves that the best GMs in pro sports make to prolong a team’s window for championship contention.
Birth date: March 26, 1993
Acquired via: Trade with Arizona (June 23, 2017)
Most recent stop: Arizona Coyotes (NHL)
Size: 6’4, 212 pounds
Contract: Five years, $3.85 million cap hit
As we mentioned on the day that the Hawks acquired Murphy, the logical next step is for Murphy to move into the now-open spot among one of the Blackhawks’ top two defenseman pairings created by the departure of Hjalmarsson. Murphy, who was a first-round pick of the Coyotes in the 2011 NHL Draft, has been logging those types of minutes for the Coyotes. But skating 20 minutes a night on a basement-dwelling NHL team is miles away from handling top-four responsibilities on a team with Stanley Cup aspirations.
We did a deeper dive into Murphy’s numbers soon after the Hawks acquired him, and most of them weren’t pretty. He had a 46.3 CF% last season, and his CA/60 number was a rather high 58.38. But you have to keep in mind that he was on a dismal Coyotes’ team last season, and those two numbers I just mentioned were the best on his team. It’s also worth noting that Arizona’s No. 1 defenseman, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, had a better CF% when he was skating with Murphy. That was the most common blue line partner for Murphy last season.
Murphy is six years younger than Hjalmarsson was, he’s bigger, and he’s a better skater. But whether or not he can match the hockey IQ of Hjalmarsson and possesses the on-ice awareness to make the subtle defensive plays that halt opposing scoring chances remains to be seen.
There are reasons for optimism. The Hawks added Ulf Samuelsson to their coaching staff in the offseason, a former NHL defenseman who has a reputation for being able to get through to younger hockey players. And the Hawks staff has developed defensemen in the past. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook reached new levels once Joel Quenneville and his staff came to town. Hjalmarsson also flourished during his lengthy stay in Chicago, and Johnny Oduya’s best years were as a part of the Blackhawks. But on the other side of that coin, the Blackhawks haven’t really developed any other young defensemen since Hjalmarsson, and he made his NHL debut almost a decade ago. Every other prospect was traded away (like Nick Leddy and Stephen Johns) or never panned out.
What’s next in 2017-18?
Expect Murphy to feature prominently on the Hawks’ blue line this season. Hjalmarsson leaves an average ice time of 21:30 behind, and it’s hard to put much of that burden on Keith and Seabrook when both are now over 30 years old.
Murphy is an intriguing youngster for the Hawks who’ll turn 25 next March (consequently, this will be his only appearance on this list). As mentioned earlier, he’s a large body who moves surprisingly well. Counting on him to replace a great d-man like Hjalmarsson is a huge gamble for the Blackhawks, but one that felt necessary after the way they were exposed in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Murphy’s addition already makes the Hawks younger and faster. We’ll find out pretty soon if it made them better.