Connor Murphy

Eight-defensemen rotation tricky, but Blackhawks understand juggling act

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USA TODAY

Eight-defensemen rotation tricky, but Blackhawks understand juggling act

For Jordan Oesterle, the wait really wasn’t a terrible thing.

Sure, he was used to playing more consistently in the past. But he knew with the Blackhawks carrying eight defensemen that several players, including him, would need to practice patience and understanding.

“It hasn’t been too long. It’s only been a week and a half so it’s not terrible,” said Oesterle on Thursday morning, a few hours before he made his Blackhawks debut against his former team, the Edmonton Oilers.

For the second consecutive season the Blackhawks are going with eight defensemen to start the season. In one way, it’s good: if anything goes awry, be it someone’s game or someone’s health, the depth is readily there.

But so are the challenges. It’s a juggling act, a delicate balance between making the right decisions and making sure a player understands that a scratch may be more about the rotation and not his individual game.

Communication, above all, is key.

“It’s not easy being the guys who are in or out, right on that bubble situation where you come in not knowing if you’re going to play. But as a staff we want to keep everyone involved,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “We know the depth of your defense is going to get challenged at some point during the year. We feel the eight guys who are here can play but that’s how we’ve always done it: We’ve always let guys know whether you’re in or out. Sometimes you have to be more patient than you’d like but handling it the right way, whether you’re a good pro or teammate, that can be healthy around the environment of your team.”

Based on all outward appearances, everyone has handled it well. Connor Murphy has been a healthy scratch twice – “I mean I just want to see the team win really...if we're winning and guys are playing well that's all that matter,” Murphy said after his first scratch.

Oesterle was a healthy scratch the first seven games. Michal Kempny, who Oesterle replaced, has been scratched the last two games. Cody Franson has also sat seven games. Franson, whose patience has been in place while awaiting contracts in his career, is practicing it again. But he’s appreciated the Blackhawks’ communication on it.

“This situation gets tough when they don’t say anything to you; you don’t know if it’s because of the way you’re playing, you don’t know if it’s something you did or what the situation is. The coaching staff has done a great job of being in our ear, letting us leave our work at the rink and not take it home with us,” Franson said. “That goes a long way in being able to stay positive and in the right mindset through it.”

After starting with eight defensemen last season the Blackhawks eventually went back to seven. Will they do that again this season? Maybe, but whoever gets sent down would most likely have to go through waivers. The Blackhawks reassigned Gustav Forsling last season to get back to seven defensemen and get Forsling more playing time. But this season Forsling and Jan Rutta have been dependable and have pretty much become the Blackhawks’ second pairing.

So for now, eight defensemen it shall be. Being part of the rotation isn’t always easy but so far players seem to get that it’s for the greater good.

“It’s one of those things where we’ve got eight quality guys. I think no matter who’s sitting on any given night, it might not necessary be due to how they’re playing or how they’re doing individually,” Franson said. “I think Q’s done a great job of managing that situation. That’s one of those things where it’s a great problem to have but it’s not an easy one to handle. So we’re all aware of what’s taking place right now and you just try to be as professional about it as you can.”

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit Niklas Hjalmarsson, Coyotes

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit Niklas Hjalmarsson, Coyotes

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Arizona Coyotes Saturday night on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Niklas Hjalmarsson's new home.

Brace yourselves, Chicago. It's going to be a weird site seeing Hjalmarsson in a different sweater other than the Blackhawks, where he spent his first 10 NHL seasons and won three Stanley Cups.

Now he serves as an alternate captain and blue-line anchor for the Coyotes, who are the only team still seeking its first win of the season. You know they'll be hungry to snap that skid, especially when there's extra motivation for a player on their team facing a bunch of old friends.

2. Connor Murphy returns to Arizona, too.

The man Hjalmarsson was traded for will also be returning to a place he called home for four years. Murphy's role with the Coyotes increased every year before he was dealt to the Blackhawks as part of a shake-up for both teams, so you know he's going to play with something to prove.

Murphy is a physical defenseman, and has laid several notable big hits this season. His former teammates surely know it, and may want to keep their heads up.

3. Patrick Kane 2.0?

Ever since he was drafted with the No. 7 overall pick in 2016, Clayton Keller has drawn comparisons to Kane. They're both undersized, offensive playmakers, possess supreme stick-handling abilities and are American-born players.

Keller got a brief taste of NHL action last year, but he's secured a full-time spot with the Coyotes this season and has been arguably their best player so far.

The 19-year-old forward paces all rookies with five goals and ranks second with seven points, and leads the Coyotes in both categories. Expect to see his name as a finalist for the Calder Trophy for the league's top rookie at the end of the season.

Connor Murphy adjusting to, learning Blackhawks’ system: 'There’s a lot of upside'

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AP

Connor Murphy adjusting to, learning Blackhawks’ system: 'There’s a lot of upside'

Blackhawks training camp had barely begun when Connor Murphy landed a big hit on Brandon Saad along the boards. For Murphy, who is known for his physical side, even new teammates weren’t safe.

“A couple of the guys are already talking about how they’re a little bumped and bruised from the last couple of days of him being physical on them,” Duncan Keith said of Murphy at the time. “He brings an element of physicality to our team that I don’t think we’ve had, especially on the back end, in a long time.”

That part of Murphy’s game was already there. Otherwise, there have been changes for the defenseman, who left Saturday’s game with a lower-body injury but was expected to be OK. After playing a more defensive, be-heavy-in-the-corners game with the Arizona Coyotes, Murphy is now getting used to the Blackhawks’ system. It’s different, but Murphy’s embracing it.

“I didn’t show as much offensive ability that I had maybe last year and I’d like to build on that with some shots from the point and being aggressive. Making sure you’re helping to pinch in in the O-zone at the right times and making it a five-man rush instead of just coasting up and letting your forwards do the work,” he said. “These forwards are so good at finding you if you come in late; it’ll be rewarding if you’re working hard going up and down the ice.”

Coach Joel Quenneville has liked a lot of things Murphy has brought thus far.

“I like his positional awareness, his size, he has physicality to his game, shoots pucks, has a big shot,” Quenneville said. “Once he gets more comfortable in how we play and the second nature of him being active defensively, offensively transitioning – we want to get our defense more involved and I think he’d like that as well.”

Dave Tippett coached Murphy in the defenseman’s first four seasons with the Coyotes. Paired with Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Murphy had to learn fast. Tippett said there were times the young Murphy was put in situations that he may not have been ready for but that he kept improving.

“He’s a big guy and when we first got him he had to fill out a little. His attitude and his smarts are what I liked about him. He really has a passion to be a really good player and every day he comes to the rink trying to get better,” Tippett said. “He’s dialed into all the aspects of getting better: skating, nutrition, everything. He watched video, not just of his own stuff but also the team. He’ll have no problem adapting.”

Getting that veteran tutelage continues in Chicago, as Murphy’s been paired with Keith since the start of camp.

“People call him an offensive defenseman but to me, he just does everything so well,” Murphy said of Keith. “It seems like the offensive stuff comes natural and the defensive stuff, he puts himself in the right position all the time and his skating and conditioning allows him to eat up minutes and to do things well and consistently. That’s something you look at and it rubs off on other defensemen, on the team, when you see your top guy doing the right things and leading the way.”

Being physical comes natural to Murphy. Learning the Blackhawks’ system will be a work in progress for the 24-year-old, but the potential is there.

“You’ve gotta remember he’s a young player but there’s a lot of upside,” Tippett said. “He’s just starting to scratch the surface.”