The Blackhawks are banking on Connor Murphy getting better. Should they?

There are good signs in Murphy’s underlying statistics, but the Blackhawks are gambling he’ll improve in a new environment. If he doesn’t, it’s a problem.

The Connor Murphy that we saw with the Arizona Coyotes over the past three-plus years is not good enough to replace Niklas Hjalmarsson. That much I feel confident saying right off the bat after Hjalmarsson established himself as one of the few impact defensive defensemen in the NHL.

The Blackhawks used Hjalmarsson for their toughest assignments, and he often posted some of the lowest CA/60 (shot attempts allowed per 60 minutes) numbers of anyone on the team. Hjalmarsson was reliable defensively in a way that very few NHL defensemen can claim.

Over the past three years, the Blackhawks allowed between 50 and 52.5 shot attempts per 60 minutes with Hjalmarsson on the ice, per Natural Stat Trick. Compare that to Brent Seabrook, whose drop-off since 2014 has been worrisome to watch: 49.6, 54.9, 57.7, 58.9. As one of the Hawks’ key players has steadily decline, Hjalmarsson has been integral to propping the team’s defense up.

Now Hjalmarsson is out, and Murphy, a 24-year-old about to start a five-year deal with a $3.85 million annual cap hit, is in. The swap makes the Blackhawks younger and gives them long-term cost certainty because Hjalmarsson would’ve needed a raise in two years. But none of that really matters unless Murphy can live up to the billing as a top-four defenseman, which he struggled with at times in Arizona.

The Coyotes have been a bad team for years, but Murphy was able to carve out a big role, averaging roughly 20 minutes per game over the past two seasons. During that time, Arizona allowed over 58 shot attempts per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play. The question is how much of that was Murphy versus the rest of the team, and whether he can take a leap forward surrounded by better talent.

The Blackhawks are hoping that Murphy can do that. But the key to their defense is now banking on a young defenseman showing substantial improvement by moving to a new environment and a new system. There’s reason for optimism, but if this doesn’t work out, GM Stan Bowman may have just created a new problem.

Why Murphy can get better

On the surface, there’s not a lot to like about Murphy’s numbers. He’s been on the ice for a ton of shots, and doesn’t help generate a ton in the other direction. He’s been neither a good driver of possession or someone who can rack up points.

But the Coyotes have been one of the league’s worst teams during his early 20s, and it’s fair to wonder how that’s impacted him. For example, while Murphy’s 46.3 percent 5-on-5 Corsi last season wasn’t good, it actually led all Arizona defensemen. The same goes for his CA/60 — 58.38 isn’t good, but nobody on the Coyotes allowed fewer 5-on-5 shot attempts. (We can also note that the Coyotes player on the ice for the second-lowest shot rate, Laurent Dauphin, was also acquired by the Hawks in the Hjalmarsson deal.)

And while Murphy spent large chunks of time on the Coyotes’ top pairing with Oliver Ekman-Larsson, widely considered their best player, Ekman-Larsson’s numbers were actually worse away from Murphy. The same goes for Jakob Chychrun, Murphy’s second most-used teammate. Alex Goligoski was slightly better away from Murphy.

And while Murphy wasn’t exactly a world-beater like Hjalmarsson, he wasn’t getting cozy assignments all the time in Arizona. When playing with Ekman-Larsson, 27 percent of their zone starts came in the offensive end, 35 percent in the neutral zone, and 38 percent in the defensive zone.

Compare that to the Keith-Hjalmarsson pairing last season, which saw 29 percent offensive zone starts, 38 percent neutral zone starts, and 33 percent defensive zone starts. So it’s not like Murphy is totally unfamiliar with the kind of usage he will likely see taking over Hjalmarsson’s spot in the lineup.

The other big concern will be the penalty kill, but Murphy and Hjalmarsson’s numbers are surprisingly close there. Murphy played 142 PK minutes for Arizona last season and allowed 115.6 shots per 60 minutes. That’s not good, but Hjalmarsson wasn’t much better in 201 minutes on the Hawks’ struggling PK, allowing 113.3 shots per 60 minutes. Seabrook, for comparison, allowed 114 CA/60 last season.

Murphy has never had a PK season as good as Hjalmarsson was in 2012-13 or 2014-15, but the Blackhawks already struggled in this area last season. It’s not like they’re going to see some grand drop-off from last season just because of Murphy, even if his addition doesn’t signal major improvement, either.

So you can see why the Blackhawks, with good word from their scouts, would be able to look at Murphy and hope he can get better. The defenseman just turned 24 in March. He wouldn’t be the first blue liner to finally have it click at a later age than expected, particularly after a change of scenery.

Why Murphy won’t get better

The problem is that the Hawks are banking entirely on Murphy getting better because his current performance hasn’t cut it. If the Hawks are suddenly giving up a 58-59 CA/60 with Murphy on the ice when those same minutes used to have a 50-52 CA/60 with Hjalmarsson, that’s a major problem.

Murphy might be younger, faster, more physical, you got it, but the Blackhawks just can’t really afford to give up more shots. Last season with Hjalmarsson, they were 16th in 5-on-5 shot attempts allowed per 60. Taking a step back would require them to really compensate offensively, which this team isn’t necessarily built to do.

And while Murphy will get to play with good talents like Duncan Keith under a good coach in Joel Quenneville, it’s not like playing with OEL under Dave Tippett was a completely terrible situation. Sure, maybe the Blackhawks will be able to locate some areas where Murphy can tweak his game (and their forwards should help a bit, too), but he was already playing top-four minutes for the Coyotes, with middling results. It’s not like Chicago will be able to unleash him in an entirely different role that transforms the way we look at him.

So we should all acknowledge the very real possibility that Murphy proves to be a massive downgrade from Hjalmarsson defensively, and what a huge impact that would have on an already declining defense. At that point, unless Gustav Forsling and Jan Rutta take the league by storm, the Blackhawks may end up being a fringe playoff team, and we may be talking about the draft lottery in April.

It’s a big gamble for the Blackhawks

For all the talk about the young forwards and the loss of Scott Darling, this is where the Blackhawks’ season will hinge more than anything. Barring any more significant trades that change the mix even further, the Blackhawks are banking that at least two of Murphy, Kempny, and Forsling are ready to play top-four roles on a contender next season. They’re also banking that Keith and Seabrook won’t decline any further, which may be a tall ask for the latter given the trends over the past few seasons.

There’s also a chance this works out golden. Murphy could take a leap next season with the Blackhawks and become a solid contributor locked in at a fair rate for five seasons. Combined with Forsling and Rutta, there will be more speed and athleticism on that back line. That’s a good thing after the Hawks got worked by the Predators’ speedy forwards in the playoffs.

But over the past few years, Hjalmarsson was one of the most reliably good parts of the Blackhawks. His removal adds chaos to the equation. The Blackhawks’ defense might be really good next season, but more than ever in recent years, there’s a real chance it’s a total mess.

Stats provided by Natural Stat Trick and Hockey-Reference.