Nary a critical word has been uttered about the play of Josh Morrissey since he took on full-time work with the Winnipeg Jets three years ago, but some uncharacteristic mistakes committed by the defenceman recently are difficult to ignore.
Two careless decisions with the puck Saturday night in Vegas led directly to a pair of first-period goals by the Golden Knights, although the Jets rallied from a 3-1 deficit to register a 4-3 overtime victory. Morrissey finished minus-2 on the night.
While the Jets returned from their California-Arizona trip with four of a possible six points locked up, Morrissey’s play was anything but memorable. In Anaheim last Tuesday, he finished a minus-4 as the Jets got clobbered 7-4 by the Ducks and then was a minus-1 as the Jets miraculously escaped with a 3-2 win in San Jose despite being soundly outplayed by the Sharks.
The math isn’t pretty for the 24-year-old Calgary product. He’s minus-12 just 15 games into the season, tied for third-worst among all NHLers in that category. Detroit Red Wings centre Andreas Athanasiou was minus-18, while San Jose Sharks blue-liner Erik Karlsson was minus-13 prior to Monday’s slate of games.
It’s a number he’s neither proud of, nor enthusiastic about dissecting.
“I think I’m doing a lot of good things. I’m not happy about some of the minuses but I don’t think there’s a lot you can do on some of them. All that matters is we’re getting wins,” he said following Monday’s practice.
The Jets (8-7-0) take on the New Jersey Devils (5-5-1) Tuesday at Bell MTS Place. Game time is 7 p.m.
“I watch my video after every game to see the plays I make. At the end of the day, you play the game and you’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to make plays that are good and bad.”
During the first period at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Morrissey had a pass intercepted at the Winnipeg blue line by Mark Stone, who hit Max Pacioretty in the slot with a perfect feed, resulting in a 2-1 Vegas lead. Just 90 seconds later, he won a foot race to a puck in his own end but then sent a no-look, backhand pass that was quickly gobbled up by William Karlsson, who found Nate Schmidt alone in front of goalie Laurent Brossoit.
In both instances, Morrissey appeared uncommonly panicked. Yet, he maintains that wasn’t so. In fact, he said the decisions were absolutely the right ones and were borne of a growing confidence in his game.
“Hindsight’s always 20/20. In both instances, could you say you should make a different play? Sure. But at the same time I’m trying to make a play there. That’s what I get paid to do is to make plays, make break-out plays, and two got knocked down. It’s gonna happen,” he said.
Morrissey, a first-round pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, is the undisputed leader on the Jets revamped back end — in large part because of his rapid development as a skilled, savvy two-way defender. But in many respects, the added responsibility heaped on his shoulders this season has come out of sheer necessity.
Gone is his longtime defensive partner, Jacob Trouba, who is now a New York Ranger. Veterans Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot are both with new clubs, as well. And the unforeseen absence of Dustin Byfuglien all but cemented Morrissey’s status as the No.1 guy on the blue line.
The Jets have needed to use two defenceman — his regular partner, Tucker Poolman, and Ville Heinola, now with the Moose — with far less experience than he has, while injuries have forced general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff to dip into waivers for help in the form of Carl Dahlstrom and Luca Sbisa. Head coach Paul Maurice has also done a pile of juggling on the back end due to injuries.
Meanwhile, Morrissey plays in every conceivable situation, the runaway leader in average ice time per game at 25:01. Neal Pionk is second at 23:12.
Maurice firmly believes Morrissey is equipped to handle the load, adding the awful plus-minus is a byproduct of some team-defence struggles still being addressed.
“I never look at that as an absolute number, as an indicator. He’s on the ice for a lot. We’ve had a couple of real tough nights and he’s been dinged up big time on those nights. I think his game is improving,” said the Jets bench boss. “He’s right where he should be, minutes-wise.
“That number’s going to bother him because he’s a really conscientious guy. He’s added more minutes playing with a new partner. He’s really working in practice and he’s in watching video with (assistant coach) Charlie (Huddy), so I have complete faith that he’s going to get to the next level.”
Morrissey has played with several right-side defenceman this season and will, in all likelihood, need to adapt again Tuesday. Poolman is doubtful for the battle with the Devils after leaving Saturday’s game with an upper-body injury,
Maurice labelled the injury “day to day,” but there was a cryptic tone in his description: “There’s no mechanism of injury, he just wasn’t feeling right after the first period. So, we’re holding him off and going to get a bunch of tests on him,” he said.
Morrissey said he’s still adjusting to life without Trouba and that comfort level they found in each other, adding the work to improve comes one shift at a time.
“For me, over the course of this year, to be honest with you, I think I’m playing better hockey in the last number of games than I was at the start of the year. But it’s pretty easy to look at plus-minus and stats like that to try to determine how a guy’s playing. There’s more to the game than just that,” he said. “People can watch the game and have whatever opinion they want, but I’m working on my game and trying to improve.
“For me, I’m in a position now that I haven’t been in the last number of years, being in every situation — which is awesome — and I think it’s about getting better. I’m 24 years old, early on in my career, and just trying to get better every day.”
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).
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