Finding Connor Murphy’s best fit within the Blackhawks’ lineup

A blue-line partner that can compliment Murphy’s game would help Murphy — and the whole team.

Connor Murphy remains one of the most important members of the Chicago Blackhawks’ blue line, having just wrapped up his fifth season with the team — the longest tenure of any Chicago defensemen.

He also remains one of the best defensive-minded members of the roster, with only two players — Seth Jones and Henrik Borgstrom — ending the season with a better expected defensive goals above replacement mark.

But he can’t do it all by himself.

With a 37.04 offensive zone start percentage in 2021-22 in his average 5-on-5 ice time of 18:21, Murphy carried a large share of the defensive burden. It caused a dip in his overall offensive production, as Murphy’s primary assists per 60 rate fell from 0.60 to 0.34 and his points per 60 rate fell from 0.66 to 0.57. that continued a multi-year trend of mild offensive declines for Murphy, who also had the lowest possession stats from this past three seasons in every category except high-danger share (47.4%, above 2021’s 46.1% mark but below 48.34% in 2019-20).

A brief guide to hockey’s advanced statistics

Still, offense is not something Murphy has ever been known for, with his career-high at just 19 points (through 58 games in 2019-20).

The important part of Murphy’s job has always been his play in his own end, where Murphy remains stout:

That blue area directly in front of the Blackhawks’ net is where opposing teams were below league averages in shot generation, which means that opponents struggled to get the puck into high-danger areas while Murphy was on the ice.

Even if Murphy’s not known for his offense, 2021-22 was an odd season for Murphy, in that he became, objectively, an offensive black hole. Murphy produced minus-1.1 expected offensive goals above replacement at even strength and minus-0.7 expected offensive GAR. That helped lead to his worst GAR and WAR marks of the past three seasons.

Despite those obvious offensive struggles, though, Murphy’s overall WAR was in the 79th percentile of the NHL — according to the Top Down Hockey data below —  due in large part to being better than 91% of the league at even-strength defense and 72% of the league on the penalty kill over the past three seasons.

However, Murphy’s GAR and WAR drop was also in part because of a decline in shorthanded play, which is arguably scarier than his reduction in offense. Murphy already doesn’t make his money on offense, but he is an important member of the penalty kill, so a decline there is concerning.

Don’t get me wrong: the Blackhawks’ penalty kill, which was ranked 24th in the league with a 76.2% kill rate, was never good this season. But it was better without Murphy, which is a problem. Murphy saw a drop in his expected GAR on the penalty kill drop from 1.1 in 2021 to minus-0.1 in 2021-22.

There were a few other statistical areas where Murphy’s numbers went south last season, too. His penalty minutes jumped up to 47 in 57 games last season, a mild increase over the 35 PIM in 50 games from the season prior. He also gave the puck up more at 5-on-5 than in either of the previous two seasons (2.41 per 60 versus 1.66 in 2021 and 2.1 in 2019-20), although Murphy did offset that somewhat with a higher takeaway rate (0.92 per 60 versus 0.88 in 2019-20 and 0.6 in 2021).

One possible solution for Murphy’s mild declines this season could be to, y’know, give him a quality teammate to play with: someone of equal or even superior talent — especially offensively — so that Murphy can focus on doing what he does best.

In the last two seasons, Murphy’s most common defensive partners have been Nikita Zadorov (with whom Murphy played 423:24 at 5-on-5 in 2021 and just 448:04 away from) and an underperforming Jake McCabe (419:57 together, 549:28 apart).

Murphy was best with Calvin de Haan in 2021, the duo playing 160:24 together with a 53.82 expected goal share. Murphy had a 47.94 xGF% away from de Haan and de Haan a 45.51 xGF% away from Murphy. Murphy and Zadorov, the more common pairing, had a 47.6 xGF%.

In 2021-22, Murphy and McCabe had a 38.53 xGF%, with Murphy at 46.93 xGF% without McCabe and McCabe at 44.49 xGF% without Murphy. Murphy played 224 minutes with de Haan and had a 47.06 xGF%, showing that in terms of defensive pairings, Murphy should have remained with de Haan, if the Blackhawks were going to lean on a shutdown pairing.

The players who played with Murphy were largely better in their time with him than they were away:

That’s despite Murphy playing with teammates who aren’t the best: the quality of teammates for Murphy on ice over the past three years is better than just 35% of the league. Murphy needs help to become the best defenseman he can be, although he’s done a pretty good job of playing over the past few years even without help.

Either leaning more into the pairings that work with Murphy or giving him a more offensive partner moving forward would be in the Blackhawks’ best interest, going forward. After all, he and young Lucas Carlsson were never a bad pairing. If Ian Mitchell or Alex Vlasic or Wyatt Kalynuk (or Kaiser) are going to be NHL contributors, pairing them consistently with Murphy may not be a bad idea.