There’s no guarantee that first rounders will establish themselves in the NHL but teams are much more inclined to give them multiple chances to prove themselves. This has been the story of Joe Morrow for the last couple of years. Someone who seemingly possesses all the tools yet has had trouble putting them all together consistently in the NHL.
He was an extraordinary talent in junior, a dominating presence on the blue line of the Portland Winterhawks with 49 points in 60 games in his draft season and 64 points in 62 games in his draft +1 year. His smooth, effortless skating added to his offensive showings and his strength in puck battles made him Pittsburgh’s choice (23rd overall) in the 2011 Entry Draft.
He wasn’t selected because of his defensive abilities even if he was described as a two-way talent on some scouting reports. The Penguins were impressed with Morrow in his first training camp but the development team put a lot of work into rebuilding his play in the defensive zone (Mike Colligan Interview). A year later, his defensive breakdowns were still diminishing his play time with the Wilkes-Barre Penguins and affecting his confidence.
Morrow was moved to the Dallas Stars in a trade involving Brandon Morrow at the deadline of the 2012-2013 season, then switched teams once again a few months later to join the Bruins system as part of the Tyler Seguin trade. During his time in Providence, Boston’s AHL affiliate, he got more comfortable and began translating his offensive game from junior. His improvements were a hopeful sight after some difficult times the previous year.
Morrow was always able to carry the puck up ice using his powerful skating, one of his distinctive abilities in his draft season. He also had a hard shot from the point that made him project as a power play contributor at the next level; the fact that he was able to use his impressive mobility to also find the lanes to shoot only added to his potential. At the AHL level, he scored most of his goals on the man advantage.
Despite playing well at the lower level and having a renewed confidence, Morrow couldn’t ever establish himself in the Bruins lineup in the three years he spent in their system. He was deemed inconsistent, prone to having costly mistakes, but most of all, he didn’t show much offensive talent in the NHL, scoring only nine points in 65 games with the Bruins. Last season he didn’t play in the AHL except for a small conditioning stint, as he was used as a 7th or 8th defenceman and watched most games from the press box.
“The consistency with Joe [Morrow]…we see the potential. But it was always, the first game was good, the second was okay, and by the third you know [Morrow’s game] got loose a little bit,” said [Claude] Julien. “So far the three games he’s played he’s been good. You know and that’s what you want from a young player, you want to see some progress and right now so far he is showing us that he’s learning that.” – Claude Julien CSN New England
In his play time during the first half of the season, he showed an ability to defend the front of the net and an excellent use of his body in puck battles, leading to many puck retrievals for his team. However, after winning those battles, the breakouts were more problematic. While under pressure, Morrow sometimes picked wrong options, dumping the puck right back to the other team or skating it up with not enough space to do so.
The 24-year-old defenceman can have some trouble recognizing his options well enough to manage efficient transitions. His turnovers are not often created by attempts to be exceptionally creative but because he tends to have a case of tunnel vision and try a play that is likely going to be covered.
Morrow was generally conservative in his shifts and didn’t have many occasions to contribute to the offence last season. However, he wasn’t afraid to pinch up to keep the play going trusting his quickness to win the battles for the puck before it could escape him.
Unfortunately, he was once again put on the sideline after a 5-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins at the end of January, this time for the rest of the regular season. He wasn’t on the ice for any of the five goals against, but Julien wanted some change as the Bruins were fighting for a playoff spot and Morrow was an easily replaceable player.
The defenceman would only get another chance when Colin Miller was injured in Game One of the playoffs. With Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo out for the season, Bruce Cassidy, now the Bruins’ coach, had to turn to Morrow to help his depleted lineup versus the Senators.
Cassidy, having also coached Providence, had seen first hand the pairing of Kevan Miller and Joe Morrow be solid in the AHL during the 2013-14 season. He went with it instead of using call-ups. This decision proved to be right as Morrow had one of his better performances in the NHL during those playoffs. He was trusted with an increase of ice time while playing versus some of the top offensive lines.
One thing that probably favoured his skill set is the forecheck of the Senators, the famous 1-3-1 system of Guy Boucher. While the pressure of the Sens forecheckers is intense when the puck still has a chance to be recuperated, the system becomes much more passive when control is established in the defensive zone by the other team. This allows for more space and time to start a breakout, the trade off being much more difficult transitions through the neutral zone due to a wall of defenders. A good skating defender – like Morrow – can help generate more offence versus this type of forecheck.
If the d-men support the offence by carrying the puck, even to just dump it in, it’s easier for the forwards to be first on the boards to establish a cycle. Morrow led some of the assault during the series, exploiting Ottawa’s line changes and beating their neutral zone formation with speed. This directly led to a goal for the Bruins in Game Five (the clip above).
It would be exaggerating to say that Morrow’s potential as an offensive defenceman was unleashed during the playoffs, although it was definitely more common to see him support the attack by exploiting the space given to him. I’m not sure Morrow always had the same confidence in his execution playing in the NHL, often not committing to opportunities because of his fear of turnovers.
He will most likely never be a creative player in the top league, able to really drive the play and generate space like his ex-teammate in Boston Krug does. However, given his skill set, he can definitely add more points to the board than what he has done in the last three years in the NHL.
To justify giving Morrow ice time, he has to contribute to the offence when he can, as he is not always a stalwart defensively. He needs to better recognize his options on the breakout and make more accurate passes; stretching those across the ice is a good strategy if executed quickly (especially against a neutral zone clog) but he was guilty of a number of icings during the playoffs. He also needs to work on his game to better defend against the rush, using his stick and closing the space to prevent shots from high danger areas.
Additionally, big hits are not for every blueliner. He would probably be better off not trying those if it makes him end up behind the play, keeping the physical aspect of his game to board battles where he is proficient.
Because, really, the timing isn’t always there.
Nonetheless, Morrow performed well in the playoffs considering the high stakes situation. He cut down on his number of giveaways and was generally an asset in transition while playing more and harder minutes. After seemingly not progressing last year and being sidelined for the majority of the season, it was a step forward for him.
It’s understandable that the Bruins wouldn’t extend Morrow, I don’t think it’s a knock against his remaining potential but more of a tell of how many upcoming defencemen the organization has and the room they need for them. This shouldn’t be another season of being sidelined for the 24-year-old. He needs to keep his confidence up while softening the edges of his game as you can’t find consistency without playing consistently.
Now, a number of things can happen with the Habs. The most probable scenario is top minutes in the AHL, that’s if he clears waivers, but the Canadiens shouldn’t count Morrow out of the lineup. As always, they have plenty of options for the bottom pairing but the ex-Bruin seems determined to battle for a spot.
“It’s a confidence thing,” Morrow said. “If you believe in yourself, and you believe you can play at this pace and this competitive level, then that’s just how it’s going to be.” – Providence Journal
It’s a very bold and intriguing decision to sign with an organization that has a head coach who benched you multiple times the season before. If anything, it speaks highly of Claude Julien and the relationship he establishes with his players.
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