The Blackhawks’ blue line will get younger in 2021.
Ian Mitchell seems like a sure bet for one of the bottom three spots, while Adam Boqvist will look to improve in his second season. After a season mostly spent in the AHL, Nicolas Beaudin could also be along for the ride.
But those young defensemen are more offensively oriented. With Duncan Keith (37 years old) and Brent Seabrook (35) not getting any younger, the Blackhawks need a defenseman that can be relied upon to shut down opponents in crucial moments, like the final minute of a one-goal game.
That’s where Connor Murphy comes into play.
During the 2019-20 regular season, among Blackhawks defensemen who played in at least 10 games, Murphy had the second lowest rate of shot attempts against per 60 minutes (SA/60) during 5-on-5 play at 56.64 (Slater Koekkoek was the lowest at 53.79). That was a common trend, too: in most defensive categories Murphy was either second or third, often behind the now-departed Koekkoek.
At 5-on-5 play, according to Natural Stat Trick, Murphy was second in Corsi-For Percentage (CF%) at 50.21, Expected Goals For Percentage (xGF%) at 48.15, High-Danger Chances Against per 60 (HDCA/60) at 11.61 and High-Danger Chances-For Percentage (HDCF%) at 48.34. He also led the blue line in Shots-For Percentage at 49.68
And all of those numbers come in spite of the fact that he had the third-lowest Offensive Zone Start Percentage (oZS%) on the team at 41.46.
Murphy is someone who can easily move the puck out of his own zone despite spending most of his time there, and the Blackhawks benefit from that play. That dependability is a trait that the Blackhawks need during 5-on-5 play and would make him an ideal candidate to be paired with one of those young defensemen referenced above to cover up whatever mistakes they may make.
The charts below show the individual impact of Murphy’s ice time. Red areas indicate spaces where opponents took more shots than the league average while Murphy was on the ice and blue means fewer.
The percentage after the xG/60 figure indicates the team rate relative to the league. In the chart above, with Murphy on the ice, the Blackhawks had an xG/60 rate of 2.85, which was 13 percent above the league average. In the chart below, which details the Blackhawks play without Murphy on the ice, that rate jumps to 3.04, which is 21 percent above league average.
Also, notice how the darker shades of red directly in front of the Blackhawks net without Murphy on the ice.
Murphy was dependable in situations outside of 5-on-5 play, too. While handling the second-most penalty kill ice time on the Blackhawks (Keith was first overall but both had an identical average of 2:48 per game), Murphy ranked second on the team in HDCA/60 at 18.79 and fourth in three other categories: CA/60 (105.76), SA/60 (60.8), and Expected Goals Against Per 60 (6.85).
Although Murphy’s dependability is primarily on the defensive side of the game, he has shown an occasional offensive flair, like he did to set up this tap-in goal for Alex DeBrincat in the first round series against the Golden Knights:
Murphy was fourth among Blackhawks blue-liners in Goals-For Per 60 (GF/60) at .24. He scored those goals while having less power play time than those above him, including Boqvist, Seabrook and Erik Gustafsson. He also had the fourth-highest rate of primary assists per 60 minutes behind Gustafsson, Boqvist and Keith.
One thing reliable defenseman does is take care of the puck, and that’s true of Murphy. He had the second lowest rate of giveaways per 60 minutes at 2.14. Murphy doesn’t take away the puck that much — a rate of just 0.83 per 60 minutes, sixth among Blackhawks defenseman. Perhaps he doesn’t need to take the puck away because of how well he handles it when it’s in his possession.
Murphy was one of the most valuable defensemen on the Blackhawks last season. According to Evolving Hockey’s data, he was third in defensive Goals Above Replacement (GAR) at 1.8 and third in GAR overall at 4.2. In terms of expected GAR, Murphy ranked third in defense at 2 and was first in xGAR (5.4) and xWAR (1).
What does all of this mean for the Blackhawks?
For one thing, it means that Murphy has most likely become their most valuable defenseman. He’s someone the Blackhawks can’t afford to expose at the expansion draft next offseason and a new contract extension in the 2022 offseason will have to be a priority.
It also means the Blackhawks, should they re-sign Murphy, have someone who will be valuable on that blue line for a long time. Murphy is just 27. While the Blackhawks’ rebuild could take a while, Murphy should still have value as a player for another five years.
It also means the Blackhawks have someone to pair with Mitchell or Beaudin or even Boqvist in the present. If the Boqvist-Keith pairing continues to look as rough as it did in the playoffs (that duo allowed seven goals against in just 71:04 of 5-on-5 ice time), the Blackhawks could move Boqvist to Murphy’s side instead.
That could benefit Boqvist while he learns the defensive side of the game. Murphy has become old reliable for the Blackhawks, and through this rebuild, they will need to depend on him as such.