WINNIPEG — Given the way he moves, the hare would seem a much more natural comparison for Josh Morrissey than the tortoise. In broad terms, though, there’s long been a slow-and-steady dynamic to his development.
“I’ve always been somebody who seems to get better as, let’s say, the tournament goes on or as the season goes on,” says Morrissey. “Not necessarily jumping in right off the bat and the best [you’ll see from me] is what you see the first day. I seem to gradually improve.”
The Jets clearly believe that trend will continue, as the club announced on Thursday morning it had reached an agreement on an eight-year extension with Morrissey that will kick in next July after the final year of his current pact expires. Discussing Morrissey’s progression to this point is a tricky thing because if you talk to players and staff in the Winnipeg Jets organization, they’ll tell you his abilities have been present and valued from Day 1.
“That stick that he has was always amazing,” says forward Mathieu Perreault. “Even when he first got here. Practicing against him every day [you really notice it]. You’re in the corner and Josh is coming at you, he’s taking [the puck] away from you. You have to be really careful. Great feet, he’s really good at opening up his hips to get away from you, so he’ll make you chase him. Opens his hips, get away from you and just rifle it right on somebody’s stick. He’s an amazing player.”
Still, those of us who aren’t part of those one-on-one drills can remain slightly oblivious until a player waves a little smelling salt under our nose in the form of can’t-miss production. Morrissey — who will earn an average salary of $6.25 million once his extension kicks in — widened eyes around the league last year by scoring at a 43-point pace before a shoulder injury in late February torpedoed the rest of the regular season for him.
Whether you view last year as a breakout performance or a case of the numbers finally catching up to a guy who was always doing everything right, the bottom line is Winnipeg needs Morrissey — entering his fourth NHL campaign — more than ever. Because of his injury, the Calgary boy wound up seeing the fourth-most total ice time among Jets blue liners last season. All three of the guys ahead of him — in order, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot — vacated town this summer, leaving all kinds of heavy minutes to be distributed among a suddenly unsettled Jets back end.
So while Winnipeg will be looking to a number of defencemen to step up, the lion’s share of the load will fall to the bright 24-year-old who plays the thinking man’s position with slippery sophistication.
“I don’t even know how subtle it is any more,” teammate Andrew Copp says of Morrissey’s evolution. “He’s probably one of the more underrated defencemen in the league. His skating is fantastic, he’s worked on his game so hard. He’s dynamic on the blue line, he knows when to jump in, when to stay back, he’s got a great stick defensively, he’s always in the right position.
“When you’re out there, you want to have him behind you because you know he’s going to be doing the right things and you know you’re going to be playing in the offensive zone more often than not.”
Though everyone on the club acknowledged the worth of his efficient play, Morrissey entered last season bent on displaying tangible evidence of that offensive game that got him drafted 13th overall in 2013. Despite playing just 59 contests, he still upped his career-best point total from 26 to 31 and saw his average power play time spike from 20 seconds per game two seasons ago to 1:45.
“My first year, I was just trying to make the team and I was really focused on playing solid ‘D,’” he said just days before re-upping with Winnipeg. “My whole life I’d been a power play, offensive guy and I ended up making the league probably for my defensive game and my all-around game. It’s sort of a good thing because I knew [the offensive element] was [still] there, but it was nice to see last year, when that power play opportunity was there to a greater extent and some more offensive opportunities were there, it did come to fruition. The next step in my career, I felt, was to be more productive offensively. You never know [for sure] if it’s there in your game until you do it at [the NHL] level.”
It requires very little time in Morrissey’s presence to understand the intelligence he displays on the ice is merely an extension of who he is in everyday life. Yes, he’d like to see those point totals spike, but the path to more goals and assists will always be laid with small, incremental gains. In his analytical mind, it’s all about learning from experience and getting marginally better each time out.
“If you can make a play seven out of 10 times at this point, this year you want to make it eight out of ten,” he says.
The Jets will definitely be counting on growth from Morrissey — among others — as they try to re-structure the defence corps in the wake of the off-season attrition. Right-shot defenceman Neal Pionk was part of the return when Morrissey’s former playing partner, Trouba, was dealt to the New York Rangers in June. Youngsters Sami Niku and Tucker Poolman have been marinating in the system and may be ready for increased responsibilities, while Dmitry Kulikov — signed as a free agent in the summer of 2017 — could yet play an important role for the team after two forgettable, injury-plagued campaigns in Manitoba.
“Sometimes all you need to see a huge improvement in a player is an opportunity,” Morrissey says. “You see a guy completely come out of his shell. And for me, I want to try and take the next step forward in my game and take on some of those minutes we lost.”
As we know, the more time Morrissey gets, the better. And he’s got about a decade ahead of him in Winnipeg now.