March 25, 2023

With news that the Toronto Maple Leafs will be without Jake Muzzin for the foreseeable future, it leaves the organization with a void that requires a more strategic response than merely spreading out his minutes across their roster. If the Maple Leafs hope to maintain their status as a contender, that is.

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Fortunately for Toronto, the Chicago Blackhawks are seemingly prepared to sell their most promising and proven pieces to extract current value in exchange for future potential. What’s more, they also have the perfect fit when it comes to replacing Muzzin’s presence on the Maple Leafs — Connor Murphy.

Moving Murphy Benefits the Blackhawks

Regardless of any early-season success that may have surprised skeptics to this point in 2022-23, Chicago’s mandate to rebuild surely remains intact. Having explicitly communicated that plan, there’s still time ahead of them before anyone should expect this team to be able to consistently compete among the league’s best.

Connor Murphy, Chicago Blackhawks
Connor Murphy, Chicago Blackhawks (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

With that in mind, it makes perfect sense for the Blackhawks to be open for business. As evidenced by Kyle Davidson trading away players like Brandon Hagel, Alex DeBrincat, and Kirby Dach. Rather than building around such youthful talent, the Blackhawks’ general manager (GM) opted to focus on setting a fresh foundation instead.

Given the aggressive moves that Davidson has stick-handled to this point, let alone that his ultimate goal has been to stockpile picks in the process, there’s no reason to doubt more of the same is coming. All it will take is the right trading partner, looking for what Chicago has to offer and ready to give up what they’re after.

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Witnessing what Murphy has proven capable of, especially as he’s become a staple of sturdiness on the Blackhawks’ blue line during some less-than-competitive seasons in Chicago, it would be illogical for the Maple Leafs to overlook him. Despite recognizing that he should fetch a solid return.

One that could easily be enhanced, even, if the Maple Leafs were hoping to offload some contracts within the respective negotiation. Which is a reality they might have to face given their salary cap situation, whereas the Blackhawks can currently afford to absorb some added expenses. Even if that means acquiring players they aren’t particularly interested in paying.

Kyle Davidson Chicago Blackhawks
Kyle Davidson Chicago Blackhawks (Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images)

Just as they did with Hagel, DeBrincat, and Dach, the Blackhawks could use Murphy’s desirability to their advantage. If Davidson’s goal is to maximize his activity during upcoming drafts, dangling a reliable leader like Murphy in front of an ailing Maple Leafs team should help accomplish that task.

Dubas Has to Keep Toronto Competitive

Although it’s been noted that Kyle Dubas is in no rush to explore the trade market, with more inexperienced defensemen expected to take on greater responsibility in Muzzin’s absence, Toronto’s GM would be doing his club a major disservice by not addressing this situation more proactively.

Kyle Dubas Toronto Maple Leafs
Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin/The Hockey Writers)

Being that the Maple Leafs are right within their window to win, let alone that it’s getting close to slamming shut without any meaningful results having been reached, means that there is no time for Dubas to waste in his pursuit of keeping this roster as dominant as possible. However, that doesn’t have to come at the cost of development.

The Maple Leafs would still be able to offer players like Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren more ice time, even if Murphy was inserted alongside them. Sheldon Keefe gaining such added support should actually make managing his objectives as head coach that much easier, seeing as how he’d then have more star power to utilize.

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It would simply be on Keefe to balance his defensive deployment as effectively and efficiently as possible, to offer Toronto’s younger stars increased opportunity while relying on his veteran presence when most appropriate to do so. Thereby, putting each of his players in a position to succeed while limiting their potential to turn into a liability.

Acquiring an athlete like Murphy offers far more advantages to Toronto than overplaying Sandin or Liljegren could. Meanwhile, not only would the collective be improved, but it’s not as though such a move would have to interfere with anyone’s progress. It would just be more gradual, which doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Maple Leafs Better Off Acquiring Murphy

The presence that Muzzin offered to Toronto’s blue line isn’t easily replicated. Entering his 12th season in 2022-23, the defenseman had certainly done enough to achieve a level of consistency that made it easy to presume the advantage he offered the Maple Leafs both on and off the ice.

“There’s a void there just as much as there is on the ice,” Morgan Rielly says. “On the plane, he’s our guy in poker. He’s just a big part of our group — on the road, on the plane, in the room, on the ice. So it’s on our guys now to accept more responsibility to step up. And realize that there’s a gap there without him, and we got to make sure that we fill it.”

Through his nearly 700 games played to date, Muzzin has averaged a couple of hits and blocks through just over 21:00 of ice time per night. He’s even been looked to for offensive production from time to time, sitting on 294 points before being sidelined. However, at nearly 34 years old as the season began, it would have been fair to assume that Muzzin’s impact was set to regress accordingly. A decline that may have already begun.

Meanwhile, 29-year-old Murphy has shown all the right signs to indicate that he’s playing through his prime. Having improved his game in practically every regard since joining the Blackhawks back in 2017-18, after progressing through his first four years with the Arizona Coyotes in a similar manner, Murphy has turned into one of Chicago’s most important players.

Didn’t get a chance to properly celebrate this moment last night. So, without further ado, please enjoy:
We Appreciate Connor Murphy dot Gif

Playing through his 10th season in 2022-23, Murphy has now accumulated 121 points, 1,079 blocks, 1,211 hits, and 138 takeaways as he approaches 600 games played in the NHL. Metrics that have experienced year-over-year increases, as his trendline continues travelling in the right direction.

What makes this proposition that much more interesting is how Murphy’s influence compares with Muzzin’s. Though, despite any current alignment between what the two have done of late, one offers an advantage that’s not quite as possible for the other.

All it takes is a quick glance at their respective resumes, especially their most recent stat lines, to determine that Muzzin appears to have bypassed his peak as Murphy continues to work toward his.

Jake Muzzin Toronto Maple Leafs
Jake Muzzin, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin/The Hockey Writers)

Since 2020-21, Murphy has averaged greater ice time, hits, and blocks than Muzzin, while causing fewer giveaways per contest. Despite a lesser points-per-game pace, what Murphy would add to Toronto’s defensive strategy has to be seen as far more essential in helping them address that area of their game plan.

Plus, considering that Murphy has owned a higher shooting percentage than Muzzin of late, infusing Murphy into a potent offensive system in Toronto could easily translate into increased output that would be less likely elsewhere. Merely a bonus, though, as it’s his defensive attributes that should attract Toronto first and foremost.

Murphy Would Be the Ultimate Beneficiary

That the Maple Leafs and Blackhawks are headed in different directions at the moment would make this negotiation a lot simpler on all fronts. Not having to worry about competing interests, both could come out on top following this transaction.

All that said, while each franchise would benefit from this deal, Murphy would be the ultimate winner. Throughout his time in the league thus far, he’s been tasked with elevating the efforts of both the Coyotes and Blackhawks during periods in which neither was in a position to return the favour. Getting a chance to join a contender would set him up for a level of success otherwise unattainable.

Offering his impact to a city that’s ready to win would also earn Murphy a spotlight unique to the Toronto market. Already an easily likable fan favourite, one can only imagine the adoration he’d receive if he were to help the Maple Leafs achieve in a way the organization has avoided for decades.

The fact remains, there are a lot of factors to consider for this to turn into anything more than a hypothetical discussion. First and foremost, Murphy’s modified no-trade clause would have to permit such a move. Equally as relevant is Toronto’s financial situation, in that they’d have to free up some funds before they could take on even a fraction of Murphy’s $4.4 million per year paycheque through 2025-26. All of which is completely plausible, mind you.

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With all that said, it’s indisputable that the Blackhawks trading Murphy to the Maple Leafs truly would benefit every party involved. Chicago would further invest in its future as Toronto optimizes its current lineup, while Murphy gets to experience what it’s like to impact a collective that’s poised to reach the game’s pinnacle. A win-win, all around.

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