GLENDALE, Ariz. — Connor Murphy is a study in contrasts. Off the ice, he’s likeable, approachable, articulate and goofy.
“He’s a terrible dancer,” Coyotes captain Shane Doan said as Murphy walked past, strutting his stuff.
On the ice, Murphy’s likability quotient drops dramatically — at least through the lenses of opponents. Since returning from a three-game benching in early December, Murphy has transformed into a nasty, edgy, smack-talking physical force, playing alongside Oliver Ekman-Larsson on the team’s top defensive pairing.
In the 24 games before his benching, Murphy had a goal, five points, 20 penalty minutes and was minus-3. In the 13 games since his return, Murphy has three goals, five points and is plus-9. Despite his increased physical play, Murphy has only been whistled for two minor penalties in that 13-game stretch.
“OEL is easy to play with,” Murphy said. “Sometimes I feel bad because I throw him junk like a rolling puck and he’ll pick it up and make a perfect sauce pass to a forward skating up the wall. There are times like that where you get away with stuff because his skills are so ridiculous.”
Playing with Ekman-Larsson has its benefits, but that’s only part of the story behind Murphy’s transformation into a dependable top-pairing defenseman and a royal pain in the backside. The other half has to do with Murphy’s Type A personality.
“I was like that in school, too,” he said. “I had to get As. It was a competition thing. I didn’t want anyone else to get better grades. When you care so much about what you’re involved in and hate losing to an extreme extent, you get more wired to be more critical and blame yourself.”
The Coyotes’ coaching staff and players love Murphy’s drive, but they have tried to help him manage the damaging overdrive.“His dad (Flyers assistant Gord Murphy) has been a coach and he’s been coached his whole life,” Doan said. “That’s a good and bad thing. Sometimes it makes the game tougher because you can become so cerebral in your approach. He always wants to get better. Sometime you need to take a breath and be able to enjoy the moment.”
Murphy’s well-documented injuries earlier in his career have made him feel as if he had to make up for lost time — in his on-ice training and in his mental grasp of the game. All the same, he also admits to a dose of impatience.
“You want to be a veteran player now,” he said. “You don’t want to go through those steps, make mistakes and learn from them. You want to be at that position where you see the older guys like (Zbynek) Michalek, (Nicklas) Grossmann or OEL.
“That approach worked for me in some cases because I was able to push through tough times, but that attitude sometimes carries a double-edged sword because you can’t take things a little lighter and step back and say ‘hey, I’m OK here.'”
When the season began, the Coyotes coaching staff was expecting either Michael Stone or Michalek to man the right side next to Ekman-Larsson. Murphy is just 22, so the staff didn’t think he was ready yet, and his early performance supported that feeling.
“When Murph first came into the league he felt confident in his ability to be aggressive, but as the details of the game started becoming more important we moved his focus away from being naturally aggressive to making sure he was in the right position,” said assistant coach Jim Playfair, who coaches the defensemen. “That’s when I think he started overthinking.
“What he was overthinking were really important details like who he was playing against, or his positioning, but I think he got frustrated with all the questions he was asking himself on the ice and he almost got slowed down in his natural game so I showed him some video clips one night in Buffalo (Dec. 4) and had him sit out the game.”
One game stretched to three and by the time Murphy returned to the lineup, head coach Dave Tippett predicted he would never be a healthy scratch again.
“He’s been very good, very stable, very steady,” Tippett said. “He’s coming into his own and you’re seeing a real good player
Playfair is taking particular pride in what he is seeing from Murphy. The disparate personalities Murphy carries on and off the ice form the optimal combination to coach.
“When you watch him against the other top two or three players, at some point they’re lashing back at him because he’s engaging himself and his stick and positioning are good — he’s frustrating them by taking time and space away,” Playfair said. “If the top players are frustrated he feels he’s doing his job and that makes him happy. That’s his mark now. He’s found his identity.”
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