Blackhawks’ Connor Murphy ‘itching’ to rejoin lineup, begin playing to potential

Here’s the thing about being a hockey player who’s stuck in a back brace, can’t play, can’t even skate and, half the time, doesn’t know what to do with himself: It’s not as fun as it sounds.

“It’s the worst,” Blackhawks defenseman Connor Murphy said, and he would know.

Murphy hasn’t played in an NHL game since last season. On the rebound from September back surgery, Murphy, who missed all of training camp, at last rejoined Hawks practices as a full participant this week and took contact for the first time on Tuesday. He traveled with the team to Anaheim and Las Vegas, but wasn’t expected to be cleared quite yet for game action.

Any day now, though, the curtain will be lifted on Murphy’s second season with the Hawks. It could be Sunday against the Canadiens at the United Center.

“At least being able to be a hockey player and work on stuff and [practice] is nice,” he said. “But that kind of wears off after a week or so, and then you’re just itching so hard to play games and get competition. It’s tough when you show up in the stands and watch the guys.”

It’s especially tough watching a team lose 16 of its last 19 games and go from an encouraging start to the season to scraping the bottom of the Western Conference standings. Murphy — who knows a thing or two about missing the playoffs, having done so in each of his five NHL campaigns — wants to grab a bucket and do his share of bailing water from the boat.

“I’m not saying [coming back] is going to contribute to winning all the time, but you want to be a part of every experience with the guys throughout the year,” he said.

Murphy, 25, also is eager to hit the reset button in regard to the perception of his game. In 2017-18, he was 10thin average ice time (16:22) out of the 11 defensemen who played for the Hawks. Though he blocked shots reasonably well and delivered more than his share of hits, he struggled with puck possession and scored only twice despite a career-high 109 shots on goal.

As far as Hawks fans were concerned, it was nowhere near good enough from the main piece the Hawks got from the Coyotes in the 2017 offseason trade for longtime blue-line bulwark Niklas Hjalmarsson.

It wasn’t good enough for Murphy, either.

“I definitely didn’t reach or show my potential in the first year here,” he said. “Especially off the bat, it was [finding] a level of comfort to get used to the guys and get used to the team and the way you play and different rules and minutes and roles you have. Those are things that, alongside a mixture of a bit of losing we had last year, it’s hard.”

The most constructive thing for Murphy last season may have been a rare move to the left side of the defense, where he played when paired with Brent Seabrook. The level of focus that took, he believes, raised his overall game. For too many weeks since then, though, there wasn’t much he could do aside from watching video to keep his mind sharp.

But the back issue is 100 percent in the past, Murphy insisted, and better days are ahead.

“I feel a lot more comfortable,” he said. “And I want to make a bigger impact.”

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