The Blackhawks’ defensive system is not one in which many defensemen thrive. Jeremy Colliton’s man-to-man system has seen players like Nikita Zadorov and Calvin de Haan drop in quality of play, partially because the system takes away what they are best at doing.
And yet, there are players like Connor Murphy who do thrive, perhaps despite the system in which he is locked in. Murphy was one of the best defensemen in the league this season by both expected and real goals above replacement (Murphy finished with 6.8 xGAR and 7.6 GAR), mostly due to his defensive play (Murphy had 4 defensive GAR and 3.9 expected defensive GAR).
Despite taking on a huge defensive role in 2021 (moving from a 41.46 offensive zone start percentage in ‘19-20 to 29.19 percent this season), Murphy managed to stay relatively close to his possession numbers in ‘19-20 as his share of the expected goals fell from just 48.15 percent to 47.13 with a large increase in defensive zone starts and less consistent defensive partners.
The Blackhawks, with an oncoming surge of young defensive talent, need a defenseman like Murphy. While he’s not the greatest offensive presence — Murphy had rates of only 0.16 goals and 0.81 points per 60 minutes — Murphy is capable of playing next to a more offensive partner and helping lock down chances the other way. With a partner like Adam Boqvist, Dougie Hamilton (available as an unrestricted free agent this offseason) or Shayne Gostisbehere (likely available via trade with the Flyers), Murphy could truly excel as a partner on a top pairing.
Murphy is also one of the better players in terms of penalties for the Blackhawks. His ability to draw penalties — at a rate of 0.76 per 60 — and his ability to take penalties only when necessary — 0.43 per 60 — saw him generate 2.3 goals above replacement. Murphy makes the right play at the right time and that can frustrate opposing skaters.
Murphy is likely the Blackhawks’ best defenseman, currently. While he may top out as a No. 2 defenseman — somebody who compliments a true No. 1 defenseman but likely can’t carry a pairing on his own — his defense is an asset not found in many other Blackhawks blue liners.
Murphy impacts the defense so much that they are 0.37 expected goals per 60 better with Murphy on the ice than with him off. While that’s also an omen the Blackhawks need better defenders, it’s also a sign that Murphy is worth his salt, even when other players are declining in the current system.
All of those numbers come while Murphy is facing the toughest assignments and — towards the end of the season — pairing with inexperienced NHLers like Riley Stillman and Wyatt Kalynuk without the benefit of starting shifts in the offensive zone. Murphy proved a workhorse and a reliable one in 2021. When Murphy played with Calvin de Haan at the beginning of the season, that duo was one of the Blackhawks’ best pairings.
Murphy is someone the Blackhawks can build their defense around, and a player who can anchor their penalty kill for years to come. While Murphy is now 28 and has one year remaining on his $3.85 million deal, the Blackhawks will have the space necessary to bring him back at around the same price.
Murphy’s also proven himself worthy of a leadership role within the organization, sporting an “A” during the season. Murphy has built on multiple successful seasons with the Blackhawks and continues to improve, even if his offensive numbers took a step back in 2021.