Murphy extension part of Blackhawks’ bold makeover on defense

Murphy extension part of Blackhawks' bold makeover on defense
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If the goal of a bold offseason of moves was to totally distract from a very ugly lawsuit, then the Blackhawks failed. But a series of moves, including Tuesday’s Connor Murphy extension, might at least help the Blackhawks dramatically improve their defense.

Blackhawks sign Murphy to four-year, $17.6M extension ($4.4M cap hit)

The Blackhawks signed Murphy, 28, to a four-year extension that carries a $4.4 million cap hit starting in the 2022-23 campaign. (This season will be the last where Murphy carries a $3.85M AAV.)

While the Blackhawks hope that Seth Jones‘ recent decline — last season, in particular, was a disaster — is a fluke, they likely hope that Murphy’s improvement sticks. JFresh’s WAR percentile captures that: a steady defensive player whose offensive impact rose:

Considering how steady Murphy is defensively, and how erratically NHL teams spent on right-handed defensemen during this offseason, this seems like a nice deal for the Blackhawks.

He won’t light up the scoreboard, but for this team, low-event must feel like a nice change of pace.  For six straight seasons, Murphy’s generated somewhere between 13 and 19 points.  That downplays his offensive improvement, though, as he scored 13+ points in each of the last three seasons despite playing in 58 games or less.

In 2017-18, Murphy’s stock seemed to drop with the Blackhawks. He only averaged 16:22 time on ice, drastically down from 2016-17 (19:11 TOI). He’s climbed since then, going from 19:29 to 21:15, finally peaking last season with a career-high TOI average of 22 minutes and nine seconds.

“He has transformed into a defenseman capable of matching up with the opponent’s best players and someone we trust to help us preserve a lead in the final minutes,” GM Stan Bowman said as part of the team’s official release.

Blackhawks dramatically change their defense

No, Murphy isn’t the main attraction here. He’s not even an unfamiliar face in Chicago.

By getting him under contract through 2025-26, it underscores just how much the Blackhawks have invested in revamping their defense, though. There’s a strong chance they’ll indeed be better, but the greater mystery is if it will all be worth it.

(Is there a nagging question about whether Bowman should still be in place to make such bets? Absolutely.)

Consider some of the big/medium-sized changes to the Blackhawks defense during this offseason:

  • The Blackhawks didn’t just trade for Seth Jones; they also extended Jones, 26, for eight more years with a mammoth $9.5M cap hit. If they’re wrong about Jones, they’re wrong in a big way. That deal expires after the 2029-30 season.
  • If Jones’ struggles are a sign of things to come, instead of an outlier, that would already be bad. It would be even worse if Adam Boqvist skyrockets with the Blue Jackets, as he was part of a robust Jones trade package.
  • Could trading away Duncan Keith count as “addition by subtraction?” Either way, he’s with the Oilers now. (Brent Seabrook‘s deal is also off the books.)
  • That swap brought in Caleb Jones, Seth Jones’ brother. He could be a decent-enough depth addition.
  • “Fancy stats” don’t smile upon Seth Jones, but that doesn’t mean the Blackhawks need to admonish all analytics. After all, Jake McCabe (27, four years, $4M cap hit) has long been a darling in that regard.

Take a look at McCabe’s RAPM chart for 2020-21, via Evolving Hockey:

Murphy extension part of Blackhawks' bold makeover on defense McCabe RAPM
via Evolving Hockey

If Jones rebounds in a big way (the charts didn’t always frown upon him — at least not to such an extreme), that’s the biggest thing for the Blackhawks. Getting boosts from depth players (maybe Riley Stillman can be a gem?), and Chicago could really get cooking.

A few other factors to consider

The other splashy Blackhawks addition could be the biggest make-or-break factor in Chicago allowing fewer goals. Can Marc-Andre Fleury carry over the momentum from winning his first-ever Vezina Trophy with Vegas?

At 36, it’s dangerous to ask too much. And, even with this makeover on defense, the Blackhawks likely will provide a lot less support than the Golden Knights did.

Beware of counting out Fleury, though — especially when he has something to prove.

Speaking of having something to prove, can Jeremy Colliton get the most out of all of these new parts? Basically since he started, it felt like Colliton was graded on a curve. Sure, the Blackhawks have been terrible, but it may have come down to personnel.

Those retorts won’t resonate the same way after this expensive, bold offseason.

Blackhawks commit to defense, are otherwise open-ended with goalies, forwards

After this offseason, the Blackhawks now have four defensemen with contracts of at least three years: Seth Jones, Murphy, McCabe, and Stillman.

When you look at the forward and goalie positions, there are far fewer commitments.

Even if the salary cap remains flat at $81.5M, the Blackhawks would have a projected $55.75M in cap space during the offseason before the 2023-24 campaign. This would be with six roster spots covered at a cost of $25.75M in cap space, according to Cap Friendly.

A lot can change over two seasons, especially if Bowman believes that his job is on the line. That said, it’s remarkable how open-ended the Blackhawks’ future looks right now.

At least, it’s that way at other positions. When it comes to defense, Murphy’s extension cements a summer of big Blackhawks commitments. In the grand scheme of things, will they be glad they made them?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.