It was a difficult summer for the Chicago Blackhawks. A team that is always under pressure from the salary cap finally buckled and traded away skill in the name of stability. It was a gamble by general manager Stan Bowman, and the results have been a mixed bag through six games.
The team is 4-1-1, so the roll of the dice has paid off in the standings — at least through the first few weeks of the season. There are still plenty of reasons to be concerned about the Blackhawks, despite their strong start, however.
One of the top issues that Chicago is facing is the play and subsequent handling of Connor Murphy. He is the player who, at this stage of his career in the Windy City, is known as “the guy we traded Niklas Hjalmarsson for.” Fair or not, that’s the context under which Murphy became a member of the Blackhawks.
Sure looks like Connor Murphy, for whom the Blackhawks traded Niklas Hjalmarsson, is a healthy scratch in his fourth game. Yikes.
— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) October 10, 2017
He is a 24-year-old who was asked to replace a cornerstone of three Stanley Cup-winning teams. The sell from management was that his contract (five more years of control at a $3.85 million cap hit) was more stable than Hjalmarsson’s (two more years left at a $4.1 million cap hit). One player was going to need a substantial raise in two seasons, while one won’t need a new contract until 2022.
That reasoning looks fine on paper, as long as Murphy is able to play at a level similar to Hjalmarsson. It was clear that this was a big ask when the trade went down, and the reality hasn’t been any prettier for Murphy as the season has unfolded. The defensive defenseman needs help breaking the puck out of the offensive zone, and so far, that just hasn’t happened.
Instead, he’s been scratched twice and has been a noticeable drag on Chicago’s possession metrics. Cornerstone defenders don’t get scratched by the Blackhawks, no matter what kind of mistakes they make. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook — and Hjalmarsson when he was on the roster — were gameday locks if they were healthy. That was the kind of player Chicago thought it was getting in Murphy.
Instead, he is stuck trying to prove himself on a team that is currently carrying eight defensemen. That’s not an ideal setup, especially when one of your biggest offseason acquisitions is trying to establish himself as a day-to-day player on a team with championship aspirations.
If coach Joel Quenneville truly saw Murphy as the heir apparent to Hjalmarsson, then he’d be giving him more leash to play with instead of scratching him for PTO-turned-roster player Cody Franson. When Franson signed his one-year deal, he was considered a potential option for the third pairing. Meanwhile, Murphy was thought to be a lock on the second unit because of the sacrifices the Blackhawks made to acquire him.
That isn’t how things have shaken out, and with Jan Rutta impressing early and Franson setting up important goals, Murphy has been left on the back burner. No matter how Quenneville tries to spin things, it’s a bad look.
Last week, when Chicago took on the Montreal Canadiens, Murphy sat for Franson, and Quenneville had this to say about the move:
“It’s certainly not fun when you have to make the decision, not fun for the guys who don’t get to play. But (Franson) had a real good camp for us. We’ve got to get him in at some point. … It’s not an easy call.”
We’ve got to get him in at some point? Really? Chicago was in dire need of right-handed defensemen last season, but it seems like there has been a serious overcorrection. Teams can get into trouble when “money plays” is the baseline philosophy, but Murphy needs to be a regular roster player if he’s ever going to sniff the kind of impact Hjalmarsson made when he was in Chicago.
And if the Blackhawks have already decided that Murphy isn’t going to pan out, then that trade looks even worse than it did when it happened. It’s not like the team secured a lot of cap relief in the short-term.
This cannot be said enough: The Blackhawks could have Hjalmarsson right now. It wasn’t a salary dump. Murphy was supposed to be a key piece.
— Second City Hockey🏒 (@2ndCityHockey) October 14, 2017
The facts are clear here, and none of them are pretty for the Blackhawks or Murphy. The defenseman has stunk when he’s been able to get playing time, and his relative corsi for percentage of -7.63 is the worst among all Chicago defensemen. So maybe he doesn’t deserve to get into games since he’s not playing well, but it’s not as if his game has radically changed over the summer. Why would the Blackhawks have expected him to be markedly better immediately following the trade?
Arizona saw Muphy as an expendable piece once Hjalmarsson was offered up. And now Chicago isn’t even giving him a few weeks to settle in and find his game.
The NHL season is a long one, but the Murphy experiment has been a giant bust to this point for the Blackhawks.