Connor Murphy skated onto uncharted ice at the World Championship in Russia earlier this month. Murphy was a United States alternate captain, and at the tender age of 23, he was also the most seasoned pro on the Americans’ blue line.
“I didn’t believe it at first when I looked at the roster because there were a couple guys older than me, but then you count the NHL games that each guy has played it was pretty weird,” Murphy said. “I knew I was going to play a little more because I had played in the tournament twice before, but I didn’t know I was going to get the A. It was my first time in a captain’s role as a pro and it was great. I felt really comfortable talking to the young players and making them feel comfortable.”
Murphy played well in Russia, scoring three goals and adding two assists in a major role as an American squad woefully short on experienced NHL players still took fourth place after upsetting the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals and narrowly falling to Canada in the semifinals.
The performance was all the more notable because it was a significant departure from the physical style he embraced in a breakout season for the Coyotes.
“The first few games, (defensive partner) Jake McCabe and I were laughing because neither one of us had one hit,” Murphy said. “On the bigger ice surface, you have to use angles and your skating a lot more.”
Conveniently for Murphy, he and Coyotes associate coach Jim Playfair had discussed doing exactly that before Murphy departed. Playfair used film to break down some of Murphy’s tendencies and noticed a couple areas where he could improve, specifically when the puck was chipped into the Coyotes zone and Murphy went back to chase it in the corner.
“He would slow his skating down and let that first forechecker get close to him before he’d dump it to (Oliver Ekman-Larsson) or the centerman and a lot of times he’d go to his backhand so he took away some of his outlets,” Playfair said. “He was deferring to a system we had installed instead of using his skating.”
Playfair asked Murphy to work on getting to the puck more quickly so he’d have more space and time for a decision, while avoiding taking as many hits. He also asked him to try to gain the back of the net with the puck so he’d create a natural barrier between himself and the forechecker, with options out both sides of the net.
At the offensive end, he wanted to see Murphy jump up into the play a bit more and then work on moving his feet at the offensive blue line to get more pucks to the net.
Murphy was happy with his ability to apply those lessons on the bigger ice surface in St. Petersburg and Moscow.
“It was good to do it a bit over there. It’s easier and more comfortable to skate and use the net overseas with the bigger ice having wide corners and more room behind the net,” Murphy said. “Hopefully, that can become more comfortable in the NHL, too.”
Murphy solidified his place as a top-four defenseman last season with the Coyotes, adding a nasty and fan-pleasing edge to complement his skating ability and coach-pleasing work ethic. He had six goals and 17 points while growing into a complementary role alongside Ekman-Larsson.
The Coyotes expect to be active in the trade and free agent markets this summer to add two more top-four defenseman. While it’s possible those additions could necessitate breaking up Murphy and Ekman-Larsson, Playfair does not expect a diminished role for Murphy.
“I don’t think it holds back his development if we add players; I think it enhances it,” Playfair said. “He knows now that he can play against top players, but we all believe and agree he can take another step. The exciting thing for me is he’s going to become a harder player to play against. Instead of him having a tough time playing against top players, now they’re going to have a tough time playing against him.”