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Defense in Murphy's DNA

By Chris Kuc

T

here were early indications that Connor Murphy's destiny was to defend.

 

As a youngster, when he was on the ice and playing forward, Murphy naturally drifted back toward his own blue line to help keep pucks out of his team's net.

 

When he was on the lacrosse field in high school, some of his coaches suggested he shift from midfielder to defender.

 

"I just know that I hate getting scored on a lot more than anything," the Blackhawks defenseman said. "I'd rather beat someone by frustrating them and not letting them score and maybe getting one or two goals than to have a shootout with a bunch scored either way. I don't like to get scored on."

 

It makes sense: Defense is in Murphy's DNA.

 

The son of former longtime NHL defenseman Gord Murphy has always had a yearning to keep his opponent from scoring. By all accounts, Connor Murphy is doing that as well as he has at any time during his six seasons in the NHL. Since returning from a groin injury that sidelined him for 11 games during the early portion of the season, Murphy has arguably been the Blackhawks' most consistent defender.

Murphy's sporting acumen was formed at a young age while growing up in areas not exactly known as hot beds of hockey at the time: Florida, Georgia and Ohio. His father's 14-season playing career, followed by coaching stints, had his family moving around but no matter the locations, Gord Murphy could see potential in his son.

 

"He was very into athletics as a young kid," said Gord Murphy, who played for the Flyers, Bruins, Panthers and Thrashers during an NHL career that spanned from 1988-2002. "Growing up in the south with his dad being a player, he loved hockey. He wanted to always play street hockey in the driveway. He'd start out there by himself and over time kids in the neighborhood would gravitate and come over and start playing."

 

Those other kids included older brother of two years, Tyler, a defenseman-turned-goaltender during his days playing hockey.

 

"Connor always had that competitiveness and that athleticism," Gord Murphy said. "I think having an older brother like that gave him somebody to have as a mentor and push to keep up with."

Baseball was an early love of Connor Murphy, along with hockey and lacrosse, the latter of which he played while at Dublin Jerome High School, in Dublin, Ohio, northwest of Columbus.

 

When he wasn't on the lacrosse field, Connor was at the rink with his father, who was an assistant coach for the Blue Jackets from 2002-10.

 

"The best memories were him bringing me in on off-days when he had to skate an injured guy and sometimes he'd let me go on the ice and fool around," Connor said. "The NHL ice and those arenas to me were just like heaven. It was awesome for me to be able to sit around the rink and eat food and shower and use the hot tub. I thought that was the life. It was like a day in the life and it was just the best."

 

Those times played a big role when it came to deciding which path to take in his life.

 

"You never know how it's going to play out or ultimately what sport he was going to choose to go in," Gord Murphy said. "He played multiple sports right up until he was probably around 16 when it was finally time to make a decision that he had to commit to one full time."

 

That one was hockey, where Murphy most displayed that desire to play defensively.

 

"Connor dabbled at forward and when he played forward you could just see his natural tendency was defensively," Gord Murphy said. "Even when he played forward he would play sort of a cautious forward. Any time the puck was in doubt he would always err on the side of defense and fall back and play safe and cautious."

That career path also had the advantage of having an on-call mentor who appeared in 862 NHL regular-season games and another 53 in the postseason and is now the associate head coach for the Hartford Wolf Pack, the Rangers' AHL affiliate.

 

"My father has been big for me, especially the first few years of my career being able to help me with some of the ups and downs and understanding about the process of being a pro player and different growing experiences you're going to have," Connor said. "He stressed the importance of keeping a good head on your shoulders and a good work ethic. I've been really lucky to have tried to follow in his footsteps and learn off the good example he set for me and our family."

 

The off-ice knowledge of being a professional hockey player that Gord Murphy imparted on his son is often what resonates the most for Connor. 

 

"He taught me things when I was younger about the different steps you can take off-ice during the season, going home and being able to turn your mind off the game, and then in the offseason making sure you're proactive in getting yourself better and developing," Connor, 26, said. "It's getting that perspective from a coach on what they want to see from you as a player to be coachable and to try to really improve your game and show you're willing to do whatever it takes to win. I've definitely gotten a lot of advice from him and I try to take in as much as I can."

 

Father and son talk on the phone whenever their respective busy hockey schedules allow, but the conversation isn't always centered around the sport.

 

"I just want to be a dad, just be a father to him and support him - I'm not his coach," Gord said. "I just try to be there and if he asks questions I'll offer my advice to him but I try to make sure that I'm very sensitive to that. I just want that relationship with him."

 

Said Connor: "He's been a coach long enough to know you don't need too many cooks in the kitchen to throw too many opinions but he definitely knows my game and knows little pointers here and there that can get me on the right track. It's cool sometimes to have people like that who are outside your room and your team that you can ask for a little pointer here and there and what they're seeing as far as trends in your game."

The trend the Blackhawks are seeing from Connor Murphy this season has been consistently high-level play during a time when they need it most due to season-ending injuries to fellow blue liners Brent Seabrook and Calvin de Haan.

 

Murphy, who was selected by the Coyotes 20th overall in the 2011 NHL Draft and played in the desert four seasons before being acquired by the Blackhawks in the June 23, 2017 deal for Niklas Hjalmarsson, has four goals and 11 assists and has a plus-minus rating of plus-1 while averaging 21 minutes, 11 seconds of ice time, third-most on the Blackhawks this season.

 

The stay-at-home defenseman has been a stalwart on the penalty kill, leading the Blackhawks in average ice time while shorthanded at 2:43 to help the group improve from 29th last season to sixth this season. In addition, Murphy tops the Blackhawks overall with 100 shots and is fifth with 89 hits.

 

"He's been really, really solid," Blackhawks Senior Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman said. "He's a guy that our coaches can count on. Our penalty kill has been really good this year, it went from last place to Top 10 penalty kill, and he's a big part of that. 

 

"He does a lot of stuff that isn't sexy or doesn't get a lot of the attention - he's more of a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy - but he's competitive, physical, takes pride in defending and breaking up plays and moving the puck quick," Bowman continued. "He does everything that you need for a defenseman to do if your team wants to have success."

 

Added Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton: "(Murphy) has been really taking a lot of responsibility for us and just a calming influence on our team. Playing against good players. He's had a good year so far and hopefully he can continue. He's still got development in him, I think. There's more there so that's exciting."

 

Despite his own busy schedule, Gord Murphy doesn't miss any of his son's games.

 

"I watch every game even if I can't see it live because we're playing or something," Gord said. "I always watch it later that night or the next day. Being a dad, I don't like to miss a game."

 

When pressed, Gord put on his coaching hat to give a scouting report on his son's abilities.

 

"I'm very proud of the way he's really improved his defending," Gord said. "His level of compete on pucks around his net front and along the boards and in 1-on-1 situations and winning most of those 50-50 pucks is really good. He's a lot more confident with the puck in his first pass and his breakouts, things you like to see from defensemen consistently in the pro game."