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How did Connor Murphy’s return from injury affect the Blackhawks?

The veteran defenseman missed the first 30 games of the season with a back injury.

St Louis Blues v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Just before the Blackhawks opened training camp last September, news emerged that defenseman Connor Murphy was out with a back injury, an ailment that left him out until December. That limited Murphy to just 52 games, his lowest number since his rookie season.

When Murphy made his season debut Dec. 9, the Blackhawks were still in the middle of a freefall. Chicago had lost its sixth straight game and was in the middle of a 3-16-3 stretch that ultimately doomed its season. The Blackhawks allowed 30 goals in the prior six games, too. Even after Murphy returned, the Blackhawks lost the next two games and treaded water at a 7-8-4 pace before the red-hot stretch that began Jan. 20 and nearly catapulted them into the playoffs.

How much changed for the Blackhawks after Murphy returned?

The short answer is: not much, at least based on the numbers. What did change was the personnel. Three days after Murphy’s return, Carl Dahlstrom was called up from the AHL and Jan Rutta and Brandon Manning were traded within a few weeks. Those moves switched Chicago’s most defensive-oriented blue line pairing from Rutta/Manning to Dahlstrom/Murphy. But the team-wide numbers weren’t affected that match:

  • Before Murphy (30 games): 50.82 CF%, 45.03 xGF%, 98.59 PDO, 32.85 shots against per 60 minutes, 56 goals for and 70 goals against at 5-on-5 play
  • With Murphy (52 games): 48.29 CF%, 44.97 xGF%, 101.77 PDO, 34.51 shots against per 60 minutes, 126 goals for and 111 goals against at 5-on-5 play

The numbers above serve as another reminder that the offense was the biggest driver of Chicago’s second-half turnaround.

Murphy’s own numbers aren’t outstanding on their own: 48.32 CF% and 44.23 xGF%, with those numbers related to the team at -1.75% and -1.08%, respectively. But it’s worth noting that Murphy was tied for the fifth-lowest Zone Start Ratio among NHL defensemen who played at least 300 minutes at 0.39 (Dahlstrom is also in that four-way tie). Considering how often Dahlstrom and Murphy were beginning shifts 200-feet away from the opposing net, it’s impressive that their numbers were that close to the team-wide numbers.

When paired together, Dahlstrom and Murphy were also dead even at 23 goals for and against during their 521:42 of ice time together — almost nine full games. A defensive pairing that can handle so many defensive starts while posting possession numbers near the team rates can provide a massive boost.

Murphy remains the most reliable defensive defenseman the Blackhawks have at an affordable cap hit of $3.85 million through the 2021-22 season. Finding a second defenseman to pair with Murphy can give the Blackhawks the true shutdown pairing is hasn’t had since the 2014-15 season with Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya. And discovering that duo will be crucial for the development of the offensive-minded defensemen working their way through the Blackhawks organization.