Connor Murphy’s polarizing 2017-18 NHL season

Few Blackhawks have elicited a wider range of opinions than Murphy.

As we start to leave behind everything that went wrong during the 2017-18 Chicago Blackhawks season, it’s time to examine some of the gray areas between the up and the down that made up this hockey campaign.

It’s never easy to replace a fan favorite, but that was the task that Murphy was saddled with when he joined the Blackhawks after the 2017 trade that sent Niklas Hjalmarsson to the Arizona Coyotes.

And the early returns on the trade were less-than-expected, with Murphy scratched multiple times by coach Joel Quenneville in the first few months of the season.

But after that rough start, Murphy appeared to find his footing on Chicago’s blue line and ended up with some of the better possession numbers of the Blackhawks entire D corps.

His 53.39 CF% was only surpassed by three teammates who all played significantly less than Murphy’s 1,129 minutes of 5-on-5 time: Cody Franson (322), Erik Gustafsson (574) and Michal Kempny (429). And he did that with the lowest percentage of offensive zone starts (49.71) on the team (not including the small sample sizes of Blake Hillman and Carl Dahlstrom).

Murphy’s name was also not on the list of Blackhawks who appeared in Natural Stat Trick’s top 25 for high-danger chances against per 60 minutes referenced in this article. Murphy’s rate of 11.16 was only surpassed in Chicago by the small samples from Hillman and Kempny.

If there was an area where Murphy struggled, it was in getting the puck out of his own end. As this chart from CJ Turtoro details, Murphy had a rate of 7.06 failed zone exits per 60 minutes, second only to Brent Seabrook’s 8.06 for the worst mark on the team. It is worth noting that this data only covers the first 39 games of the NHL season and all eye tests suggested that Murphy got much better in the second half of the season.

Because comparisons to Hjalmarsson will always arise given the aforementioned trade, it’s worth noting that Hjalmarsson’s possession numbers were worse than Murphy’s, at a 47.1 CF% that was 4.1 percent below Arizona’s team rate. And Hjalmarsson’s rate of failed zone exits was also worse at about 7.75 per 60 minutes. Only six points separated their two teams in the standings, too.

I have reached three conclusions on Murphy that seem, to me, supported by any objective measure available:

  1. Murphy had a better 2017-18 season in Chicago than Hjalmarsson in Arizona.
  2. Murphy is also better than Hjalmarsson was during No. 4’s final two seasons in Chicago.
  3. But Murphy is not as good as Hjalmarsson was during his prime seasons (roughly 2013-15) in Chicago.

Murphy turned 25 years old at the end of March, so he’s still very much in his prime. A pessimist will point to that age and say that, with 334 NHL games in his career, Murphy may have already reached his professional ceiling. An optimist will suggest he played 258 of those games for a dreadful Coyotes franchise and his improved play in the second half of this season can become the norm for Murphy’s remaining time with the team. There’s plenty of room for gray here.

One specific part of Murphy’s future looks quite interesting in Chicago, and that is his late-season pairing with Gustaffson. Murphy and Gustafsson spent just under 137 minutes of even-strength ice time together, posting a 57.34 CF% according to Natural Stat Trick. All of their possession metrics were in the black and that pairing started in the offensive zone just 49.45 percent of the time.

There are plenty of other lineup positions to be debated in the months upcoming and that’s without the shuffling that could occur once the Stanley Cup Playoffs end and the trade market picks back up. But starting next season with one D pairing comprised of Gustafsson and Murphy is certainly worth another look, given how well they fared when partnered in the final weeks of the 2017-18 season.