Murphy is eligible to return from injured reserve on Nov. 16 against the Nashville Predators.
Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Connor Murphy was cleared for a full practice on Wednesday afternoon after sustaining a groin injury back on Oct. 22 against the Vegas Golden Knights. Murphy appears to be on track to play Saturday in Nashville and will likely return on the top defensive pairing with Duncan Keith.
Murphy’s return to the lineup will once again give the Blackhawks eight defensemen, and a corresponding move will likely be made. At the moment, it appears that the Blackhawks have three options when Murphy returns.
The first and simplest option the Blackhawks have is to send Adam Boqvist back to the Rockford IceHogs of the AHL. Now, this may upset a lot of people, but Boqvist certainly would benefit from playing 18-20 minutes per game down in Rockford. Boqvist has been impressive since his unexpected call-up, but the 2018 No. 8 pick is averaging just 14:24 per game with the Blackhawks.
The other factor in this decision is whether or not the Blackhawks are willing to burn a year of Boqvist’s entry-level contract. The Blackhawks already decided to keep Kirby Dach around for the rest of the season, and having both Dach and Boqvist’s contracts expire the same year could be problematic down the road.
Sending Boqvist back to Rockford makes the most sense for the Blackhawks given their current position.
The second option the Blackhawks have is to waive Slater Koekkoek for the purpose of reassignment. Koekkoek hasn’t been terrible this season for the Blackhawks, but he hasn’t been great either. The 25-year-old blueliner has one of the highest Corsi ratings on the team, but he also has the worst plus/minus among Blackhawks defensemen. Plus/minus isn’t the best stat to assess a player, but Koekkoek has been on the ice for a lot of opponent goals in his eight games played.
The Blackhawks also need to keep in mind that Koekkoek could get claimed off waivers by another team. Losing Koekkoek wouldn’t be the end of the world, but having him as a seventh defenseman is a luxury the Blackhawks would like to have. Carl Dahlstrom was claimed off waivers by the Jets just before the season opener, so it’s not crazy to think a team could take a chance on Koekkoek.
If the Blackhawks want to keep Adam Boqvist around for the foreseeable future, waiving Slater Koekkoek could be the corresponding move once Connor Murphy returns.
Now, this is where things start to get interesting. The third option the Blackhawks have is to trade Erik Gustafsson in the coming days. Of course, this option is unlikely, but it makes sense for a lot of reasons.
The Blackhawks have only played 17 games this season, but it’s already been a rollercoaster ride for Gustafsson. Jeremy Colliton decided to scratch Gustafsson on Nov. 4 vs. Los Angeles, and he looked better in the games following. That was until Sunday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, where Gustafsson played his worst game of the season. The Swedish defenseman was on the ice for 11 shots for and 25 shots against, while also committing two costly mistakes that led to Maple Leafs goals.
Gustafsson has also produced little on the Blackhawks 24th-ranked powerplay. The left-handed defenseman rejuvenated the powerplay in the second half of last season, but we’ve yet to see it this year. Through 16 games, Gustafsson has just two assists with the man advantage. Gustafsson scored a whopping 17 goals last year but has failed to find the back of the net in 2019-20. If he’s not producing offensively, then there are few reasons to keep Gustafsson around for much longer.
Adam Boqvist has only played five games so far in his NHL career, but it just feels like the 19-year-old defenseman could slide into the role the Blackhawks currently have for Gustafsson. The longer the Blackhawks wait to trade Gustafsson, the lower his trade value becomes. With free agency looming this offseason, it just makes sense to trade Gustafsson sooner rather than later.
Trading Gustafsson this early in the season is risky, but it would help clear up the Blackhawks defensive unit going forward.
None of these options are ideal for the Blackhawks, but a tough decision has to be made by General Manager Stan Bowman. The only other option is that the Blackhawks carry eight defensemen, but teams usually refrain from doing that.
Sending young defenseman Adam Boqvist back to Rockford is the likely choice, but anything can happen in the next few days. It will certainly be interesting to see what the Blackhawks do once Connor Murphy is activated off injured reserve.
For more Blackhawks news and updates, follow the author (@JackBushman2) on Twitter. Make sure to check out the author’s podcast, Talkin’ Hawkey, which can be found on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Twitter (@TalkinHawkey).