Morrissey leads what could be special blue-line

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You could excuse Winnipeg Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey if he took a look at a 2018 team photo and wonders if it was something he said. After all, the turnover on the blue-line is stunning, both in terms of quantity and quality.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/08/2021 (365 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

You could excuse Winnipeg Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey if he took a look at a 2018 team photo and wonders if it was something he said. After all, the turnover on the blue-line is stunning, both in terms of quantity and quality.

Gone are Dustin Byfuglien, Toby Enstrom, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot. Dmitry Kulikov, Joe Morrow and, most recently this summer, Tucker Poolman. Last one out the door shut off the lights? Just three years later, Morrissey is literally the last man standing from a talented group that went all the way to the Western Conference final.

“It was really not a gradual progression. It was sort of zero-to-100 in a hurry,” Morrissey told the Free Press this week in a candid, wide-ranging phone conversation from his summer home in Calgary. “I think looking at that team and that blue-line, we had depth. That’s such a key thing on the blue-line, not just for injuries, but in-game management.”

Winnipeg Jets' Josh Morrissey, left, is the last player that remains from the defensive corps that went all the way to the Western Conference final in 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/Jason Franson

Trying to fill all those holes has not been easy, nor has it been quick or painless. And the 26-year-old first-round draft pick (13th overall in 2013) admits his own game has taken a hit, with a rotating cast of new partners to break in and plenty of inconsistent play along the way. There’s also been increased pressure and scrutiny, the result of an eight-year, US$50 million contract extension signed in September 2019 along with being named an alternate captain that fall.

“It was a pretty daunting task. Almost within the blink of an eye, you go from being the young guy and looking up to the other guys and different things, to all of a sudden it changed pretty quick,” said Morrissey. “It was definitely a big change for me these last couple years.”

But hope springs eternal, and Morrissey believes the group that will hit the ice this fall has the potential to truly be something special. Neal Pionk and Logan Stanley are back, armed with shiny new contracts. Dylan DeMelo returns, too, after being spared in the Seattle expansion draft. Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon are now in the fold, the product of big off-season trades. And promising young skaters such as Ville Heinola, Dylan Samberg and Johnathan Kovacevic are all ripening on the vine.

“To be honest, I couldn’t be more excited about that and the opportunity to build something,” said Morrissey. “There’s a lot of great pieces there. Since the transition has happened, it’s the most depth that we’ve had.”

So just what might it all look like when the puck drops in October? Morrissey will likely be in his familiar top-pairing role, but his partner has yet-to-be determined. There’s a good chance it could be Schmidt, the 30-year-old obtained from Vancouver in exchange for a third-round draft pick as part of a Canucks salary dump.

“It’s a small world, we all kind of all have friends on all the teams. From talking to guys he’s played with in Washington and Vegas and certainly Vancouver, everyone just speaks volumes of his character, the type of player he is,” said Morrissey.

“I’ve never met him in person, but it kind of feels like you know him. He’s got this energy and excitement level. Any media I’ve seen him do over the years he’s always got a big smile going and when you ask anyone about him, that smile goes on their face as they’re explaining what kind of character he is. You can never have too many guys like that around.”

It’s also possible Morrissey gets another look with either Pionk or DeMelo after stints with both at times last season. He’s also thrilled with the addition of fellow left-shooting rear-guard Dillon in a similar salary-dump trade with Washington. The two often skate together during the summers under the guise of former NHLer turned skills coach Adam Oates.

“I was super excited when I saw we acquired Dilly. He’s an absolute beast of a guy. He can really move out there,” said Morrissey. “As a back end, we will find our own identity as time goes on. Looking at it, we have a mix of size and a lot of guys who can move and skate and make breakouts and move the puck. It will come together over time, but honestly, I’m really excited about how our team is shaping up.”

Morrissey had a terrific first-round playoff series against Edmonton, when he and DeMelo helped keep Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl mostly in check during a four-game sweep. But he and his teammates struggled to keep that going in the second-round, when they were quickly wiped out by Montreal in four games. Losing DeMelo to an injury on the first shift of Game 1, and Mark Scheifele to a suspension at the tail end, certainly didn’t help.

Morrissey has changed his personal strength trainer this summer and believes the new program will translate to more effective play on the ice, especially after such an unusual, abbreviated off-season last year due to the pandemic.

“It’s been nice to have a full off-season of work. I’m really happy with how it’s going and the results that I’m getting,” he said.

Morrissey also applauded other recent Jets move, including the return of fully vaccinated fans to the downtown rink for the coming season, last week’s announcement of a Dale Hawerchuk statue in True North Square and the use what he described as the “stunning” Heritage jerseys as the club’s full-time third sweater.

“It’s hard to believe that nine or 10 months ago we were trying to figure out how we would make (last) season work to now being here. We’re all hoping things can keep moving in the right direction. I can’t imagine what it will be like to play in front of a full arena again. It’s been a long year-and-a- half for everybody,” said Morrissey.

“Watching on TV throughout the season, we were envious of the teams that were able to that. It was kind of cool, or at least fitting, for (Tampa Bay) to win a Cup in the pandemic bubble and do it in an empty building, but then able to do it this summer in a full arena in that fashion. It just seems right on some level. Hopefully it can be us next year.”

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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