Connor Murphy

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.”

Five things from Blackhawks-Bruins: Last looks and lower-body injuries

Five things from Blackhawks-Bruins: Last looks and lower-body injuries

The Blackhawks wrapped up their preseason schedule on Saturday night. But how was their health at the end of the night? Let’s talk about that and a few other items in the Five Things to take from the Blackhawks’ 1-0 victory over the Boston Bruins.

1. “I think they’ll be all right.” Neither Jonathan Toews nor Connor Murphy were on the bench at the end of Saturday’s game — Murphy went off with about 4:40 remaining in regulation and Toews, who took a puck off his leg in the third period, came back before leaving again. Both appeared to suffer lower-body injuries, but coach Joel Quenneville said that both should be OK. “We’ll know more tomorrow,” he added. As Patrick Sharp said, “that’s the one thing you don’t want to do in that last game is lose some bodies. We’ll see how they’re doing. Hopefully everybody’s OK and ready to go in a couple of days.”

2. Corey Crawford finishes strong. Crawford’s last outing against the Bruins in Boston was a rough one. He made up for it tonight, closing out the preseason with a 38-stop shutout. While the rest of the Blackhawks looked sluggish overall, Crawford was outstanding. Again, we’re only dealing with a two-week sample size, but with Crawford maintaining form and Anton Forsberg having two good outings, the Blackhawks’ goaltending situation should be all right.

3. Alex DeBrincat takes a third-line spin. The Blackhawks have put the 19-year-old with a couple of different combinations. And after joining Artem Anisimov and Ryan Hartman at the Blackhawks’ first practice at Notre Dame on Sunday, that’s where DeBrincat was in the preseason finale. Overall, the Blackhawks looked just a little off, so this wasn’t the most telling look of that trio. But Quenneville was very happy with DeBrincat again.

4. Another good night for Jan Rutta. The Blackhawks beat out a few teams vying for the Czech defenseman’s services, signing him to a one-year deal over the summer. He’s had a good camp and capped it with another solid outing on Saturday night. Rutta, paired with fellow Czech Michal Kempny, has looked poised throughout and gives the Blackhawks another option on the blue line.

5. Is this the Blackhawks’ opening night lineup? As Quenneville said after the game, “possibly.” The Blackhawks will likely make their final roster decisions on Monday, and considering the camps DeBrincat and John Hayden have had, they’ve earned opportunities. But remember: on the opening night of the season Marian Hossa must still be on this roster. So don’t worry so much about the Blackhawks’ roster on the NHL’s opening night (Wednesday); keep an eye on what it is on the team’s opening night (Thursday).