Morrissey among NHL’s elite D-men Blue-liner raising game under Bowness

ST. PAUL, Minn., — Spoiler alert: This is a Josh Morrissey appreciation column.

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Opinion

ST. PAUL, Minn., — Spoiler alert: This is a Josh Morrissey appreciation column.

The Winnipeg Jets defenceman is soaring to new heights these days, the surprising top scorer on the 11-5-1 club whose latest highlight involved sniping the overtime winner — his second of the game, and on a breakaway, no less — in Monday’s wild 4-3 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes at Canada Life Centre.

Morrissey will try to continue the magic start to the new campaign when the Jets kick off a three-game road trip on Wednesday night against the Minnesota Wild. With 18 points (three goals, 15 assists) in 17 games, the 27-year-old Calgary product is on track to obliterate his career high of 37 points (12 goals, 25 assists) set last season in 79 games.

Heading into action Tuesday night, only five NHL blue-liners have produced more offence so far this year — Erik Karlsson, Adam Fox, Cale Makar, Alex Pietrangelo and Rasmus Dahlin — which is impressive company to be keeping.

Morrissey, one of the alternate captains on the Jets, is a true heart-and-soul guy, a drafted-and-developed talent who paid his dues in the American Hockey League and has endured plenty of ups-and-downs both professionally (the complete retooling of the blue-line which has involved no shortage of new, often inexperienced partners to work with) and personally (the tragic death of his father and mentor, Tom, 15 months ago due to brain cancer).

Josh Morrissey has 18 points (three goals, 15 assists) in 17 games. (Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press)

But he continues to persevere. Morrissey, selected 13th-overall by Winnipeg in 2013, is of rock-solid character, a major contributor in the community through various charitable causes and without a hint of ego. He’s a natural leader, a great communicator and everything you’d want in a professional athlete and a foundational piece of a franchise.

And yet, that hasn’t always seemed like enough.

One of the criticisms I often hear about the Jets, whether it’s in the local market or around the league, is that they don’t have a true No. 1 defenceman, especially since the departures of players like Dustin Byfuglien and Morrissey’s former partner, Jacob Trouba. Certainly not the kind you need to be a legitimate contender. You know, like a Karlsson, Fox, Makar, Pietrangelo or Dahlin.

Oh sure, they have someone like Morrissey who plays that role in terms of minutes and usage. But it’s more by default, and a serious miscast at that, or so the argument goes. Fair enough. But it’s not going to fly much longer if he can keep up this kind of play.

Only five NHL blue-liners have produced more offence so far this year than Morrissey. (Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press)

Give credit to Morrissey, of course, who has never been satisfied with the status quo, who works as hard at his craft as any athlete I’ve seen. You also have to tip your hat to new head coach Rick Bowness, who started training camp in September by saying he wanted his team to play a more aggressive, up-tempo transition game in which they worked as five-man units.

“Our D are coming,” Bowness vowed.

They sure are. Consider this: Winnipeg defencemen combined for 163 points in 82 games last year (24 goals, 139 assists), which is an average of 1.98 points-per-game. This year, they’ve put up 37 points (nine goals, 28 assists) in 17 games, which is an average of 2.18 points-per-game.

That’s key on a club that is thin up front with long-term injuries to Nikolaj Ehlers, Mason Appleton and Morgan Barron. It’s a big reason why the Jets are tied with Makar’s Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche for first in the Central Division based on winning percentage, tied for second in the Western Conference (behind Pietrangelo’s Vegas Golden Knights), and tied for fourth in the NHL.

Morrissey, one of the alternate captains, is a player who was drafted and developed by the Jets. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

Nobody has benefited from this new approach more than Morrissey, who has managed to ramp up his offensive game while not sacrificing anything in his own end of the ice. Winnipeg is giving up just 2.41 goals-against-per-game, which trails only the 17-2-0 Boston Bruins and 16-3-0 New Jersey Devils for lowest in the league. And a big reason for that is the play of Morrissey, who gets all the toughest match-ups and logs heavy minutes for the Jets on a nightly basis.

Following Monday’s thrilling victory, Bowness dropped a fascinating little tidbit in his post-game media conference. He was asked about Morrissey, and recalled one of the first conversations the two men had this past summer.

“I mentioned to him that, listen, I remember coming in here with Dallas and coaching against you, and part of our pre-game was focused on Josh Morrissey. Because he was their best defenceman. We talked about that, and that’s what I said we need from you. It’s there. And we’re going to get it out from you,” said Bowness.

“You’ve got the green light, I want you a lot more involved with the offence. I want you skating. At the end of the season, and this is what I told him, when there’s a discussion of who the top 10 D are for the Norris Trophy voting, I want to see his name in there. And he’s taken great pride in that.”

Coach Rick Bowness wants to see Morrissey's name up for the Norris Trophy, an annual award for the best defenceman in the league. (Adrian Kraus / The Associated Press files)

Don’t look now, but Morrissey would absolutely be on plenty of Norris Trophy ballots if the season ended today. Forget top 10. He might be in the top five at this point.

Safe to say he’s providing tremendous value on a contract that runs through the 2027-28 season, paying him US$6.25 million. Getting him signed to that massive eight-year, US$50 million extension in 2019 is one of general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff’s best moves. Morrissey, ever the team player, had waited patiently for that contract, when previous salary cap issues involving several teammates had delayed it from happening.

The Jets are currently without a captain, the result of Bowness stripping Blake Wheeler of the C at the start of the year to expand the leadership group. In my eyes, Morrissey would be the perfect man for the job, whenever it ultimately gets filled.

There’s no question he’s the undisputed top guy on Winnipeg’s back-end. He’s making a seriously compelling case this season that he can hold his own with the best blue-liners in the NHL. What’s not to love about that? It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

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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