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.