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JOSH Morrissey didn’t exude star power when he stepped onto the ice on Sept. 23, 2016, to begin the third Winnipeg Jets training camp of his pro career.
The Calgary product had just come off his first pro campaign— a 57-game stint with the Manitoba Moose — and reaped big minutes on the American Hockey League team’s blue line, supplying three goals and 22 points.
In camp, he didn’t look much bigger than the day he was selected by the Jets three years before in the first round (13th overall) of the 2013 NHL Draft. He was still modest in stature, a smooth skater with a good first pass and sound reads in the defensive zone.
‘It’s all part of the development curve, and I’m definitely happy with how it’s going right now. But there’s still a lot of season left, and, I hope, a long time in my career, so I want to keep getting better’ – Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey
But there were no prophecies of sure-fire acclaim for the 6-0, 195-pound defenceman from interested observers of Winnipeg’s NHL club, no assertions of guaranteed long-term employment in the league. By then, people wondered if Morrissey was simply a late bloomer — needing those three seasons to mature — or little more than a bit-part player within the Winnipeg organization.
Now 23, he has appropriately answered all questions surrounding his ability to both defend and contribute offensively, with supporting evidence gathered over two full NHL campaigns and a sensational 2018-19 season in the works.
The stats are showing up on the scoresheet for Winnipeg, particularly as Morrissey moves into the role of quarterback on the club’s first power-play unit, but are not coming at the expense of sound defensive work.
“You have to respect the league you’re in. This is the best league in the world and you’re playing against the best players in the world. It’s a gradual progression,” Morrissey said on Saturday, following the team’s 5-3 victory over the visiting Arizona Coyotes.
“I wasn’t going to play in the NHL unless I could manage myself defensively and do well that way, and that’s something I’ve really focused on. Now, some of the offensive side is just starting to come out naturally. I’ve never gone into a game trying to force anything or say I’m going to play more offensive.
“It’s all part of the development curve, and I’m definitely happy with how it’s going right now. But there’s still a lot of season left, and, I hope, a long time in my career, so I want to keep getting better.”
Morrissey scored his first goal of the year Saturday afternoon to give the Jets a 3-1 lead, set up an Adam Lowry first-period tally, and now has seven points, equal to winger Kyle Connor for most on the team through eight games. Just four defenceman in the league had more points than him, heading into Sunday’s action.
Boosting those offensive numbers has solidified his position as a prototypical two-way defenceman, excelling in both ends of the rink, with game-changing attributes. It also show Morrissey and his representatives made a shrewd decision a few days into training camp, betting on the young rear-guard by accepting a two-year, US$6.3 million bridge deal (average annual value of US$3.15 million).
Morrissey, who had seven goals and 26 points in 81 games during the 2017-18 season, would have most assuredly earned heftier paycheques had he opted for longer term, however, he’s banking on his ability to continue his trajectory until the next round of negotiations begin. But cashing his chips in 2020 remains furthest from his mind, he said.
“The business side of the game, I guess is something I don’t really worry about. I have goals to where I want to get to as a player and how I want to improve as a player. I like playing here (and) would love to play here a long time…,” he said. “As a player all you can do is work your hardest and try to improve on your game. The general theme for me is I never want to be complacent.”
The Jets play their fifth of six straight games at Bell MTS Place tonight when the Central Division-rival St. Louis Blues (2-3-2) pay a visit. Game time is 7 p.m. Winnipeg has picked up seven of a possible eight points during the stretch.
Head coach Paul Maurice said point production is an inevitable byproduct of Morrissey’s top-end skill level, emerging now while his defensive responsibilities are being met.
“The surprise isn’t the offence. From Day 1 when he came in and had such a huge impact on the structure of our back end and who plays with whom, the surprise was his defensive game and how strong he was,” Maurice said Saturday. “We felt the offensive part of it was always coming, especially when you watched his progression.
“The challenge for him coming into the league wasn’t the offensive side. He had just fantastic numbers in junior. When he gets into the NHL it’s about how much can we put in on the ice because of his defensive game? Usually these guys take three of four years before the coach is really comfortable putting them on the ice enough. He’s done it completely backwards, came in as an offensive guy but he excelled defensively and built that (offensive) game.”
Morrissey certainly had the credentials, scoring 66 goals and 196 points through four productive seasons in the Western Hockey League. He helped Canada secure a gold medal at the 2015 world junior championship, and even played 20 playoff games (2G, 7A) for Jets then-AHL affiliate, the St. John’s IceCaps when he was just 19.
His emergence aligned with the Jets’ master plan two years ago to transition to a younger, faster squad, as winger Patrik Laine was having his terrific rookie season, Nikolaj Ehlers was in Year 2, Conner was being introduced to the league, Jacob Trouba was asserting himself as a bona fide top-four defenceman and centre Mark Scheifele was gaining star status.
Paired up, Morrissey and Trouba now handle big minutes for the club, as a rule battling the oppositions’ top forward units. Playing the left side, Morrissey is unafraid to fight for pucks in the corner against far bigger men and isn’t shy about laying a shoulder into a moving target.
A left-shot defenceman, he was afforded spot duty on the club’s second power-play unit as the right-side point man the past two seasons but filled in for Dustin Byfuglien last week on the first group when the hulking rear-guard missed a pair of games with an upper-body injury.
Maurice, who said in the past he wouldn’t rush Morrissey into assuming more of a burden with the club, chose to leave him to man that location against the Coyotes, despite Byfuglien’s return to the lineup, and Morrissey snapped home a power-play goal late in the second period — a knee-to-the-ice, one-timer from the slot.
“It was a matter of time. We have such a luxury with the quality of defencemen we have. It’s just hard for guys to get the types of minutes and types of opportunities. But it’s there. He’s one of those guys who’s working on his game non-stop. He worked on his game as much as anyone this summer,” said captain Blake Wheeler. “You could see him turning a corner this summer. He looked really good out there. Credit to him for getting an opportunity and making the most of it.”
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).