GLENDALE – The Coyotes don’t hand out an annual award for Most Improved Player, but if they did, defenseman Connor Murphy would be the logical choice for the 2015-16 season.
Murphy, 23, had a plus/minus rating of minus-27 last season. This season, he finished plus-6. He also set career-highs in games (78), goals (six), assists (11), points (17), and shots on goal (101). But perhaps his most impressive stat was his team-leading 175 hits.
Head Coach Dave Tippett benched Murphy for three games in December because he felt Murphy was not engaged enough in games. During his time on the sideline, Murphy watched his teammates play and quickly got the message. In his first game back on Dec. 11, he proved that by delivering a game-high six hits as Arizona beat Minnesota, 2-1, in overtime.
“The foundation of my game has to be defending hard and I think I did better with that tonight,” Murphy told reporters that night.
Things only got better after that game. As the season progressed, Murphy, paired with offensive-minded defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, continued to evolve and became more confident. And with that, he became a much more physical presence.
“I think confidence brings a bit of an edge,” Murphy said at season’s end. “… You just get into games and get feeling passionate about winning and trying to do what you can to help. It brings out competitiveness and the edge kind of comes with that… I feel it’s fun to play the game with an edge, like a lot of guys do.”
Murphy credits physical maturation and improved skating as the keys to his success this season. He also believes playing alongside and among established defensemen such as Ekman-Larsson, Zbynek Michalek and Nicklas Grossmann also served him well.
“I think a lot of guys can say we were able to make strides individually to kind of gain confidence,” Murphy said. “To get guys to be able to establish themselves I think is a cool thing to experience.”
Murphy said he again plans to work on his skating over the summer with power skating coach Dawn Braid, who broke down his stride last off-season and provided him with technical advice as to how to improve.
“He’s come a long way,” Tippett said. “If he makes strides this summer like he made last summer he’ll be right up there again.”
Tippett had a long chat with Murphy this week in the latter’s exit interview. The conversation, Tippett said, went well.
“When you talk to young guys, there’s certain guys that look at you and you can see the glimpse in their eyes – ‘Oh, I’m hoping to do that.’ With ‘Murph’ it’s ‘I’m going to do that.’ That’s the kind of guy he is. I expect him to come back even better next year. He wants to be a top-four defenseman in this league, and he studies other top-four defensemen in the league and he knows exactly what they do and how much they play and the impact they have on the game. He’s well versed in his goal of what he wants to become.”
Ekman-Larsson, who set a career high with 55 points this season, enjoyed being partnered with Murphy and hopes they can play together again.
“It was really fun to have the chance to play with a player like that,” Ekman-Larsson said. “It was a good challenge for me to kind of help ‘Murph’ out to be a better player and try to build chemistry there. I’m super excited to get the chance to play with him again next season. I think it’s going to get even better.”