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Josh Morrissey has a major beef with anyone suggesting the Winnipeg Jets are effectively grounded moving forward unless they add some bulk and backbone.
The 25-year-old defenceman doesn't buy the theory his team, as it's currently constructed, is too soft to succeed in the NHL playoffs, despite the Flames' noticeable edge in the physicality department as Calgary upended Winnipeg 3-1 in their best-of-five qualifying series.
"I guess I would just ask you, do you feel like we need more size and grit, out of curiosity?" said Morrissey, turning the tables on a local scribe Wednesday afternoon in a Zoom chat. He was the final Winnipeg skater to speak this week as the Jets get accustomed to off-season life following another short stay in the post-season.
Jets head coach Paul Maurice and general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff take the hot seat Thursday.
"We played a tough, physical team. Looking around the league, (Calgary is) probably one of the most physical and tough teams left playing. I guess I would say that looking at our players who answered the bell in some fights, physically, I guess that’s up for interpretation," said Morrissey, who suited up for 65 games of the squad's COVID-19 pandemic-shortened 71-game regular season.
He finished with a career-high 26 assists and also provided five goals, while logging an average of 22:46 per game (behind only fellow blue-liner Neal Pionk at 23:23).
"Looking over our last few seasons, we’ve had success. We’ve had some players with some very coveted physical abilities. Looking back at (Dustin Byfuglien's) physicality and Benny Chiarot was a big, physical guy. We’ve had those kinds of players. Even this year, Nate Beaulieu throws some pretty big checks and we had some pretty physical players in our lineup."
The Flames' ability to play a heavy game, specifically the effectiveness of Sam Bennett, Milan Lucic, Matthew Tkachuk and Andrew Mangiapane, showed in vivid colour that addressing a shortage of toughness should be near the top of Cheveldayoff's to-do list prior to the December start of the 2020-21 campaign.
The Jets forfeited plenty of physicality when feisty winger Brendan Lemieux was shuffled to New York in a February '19 trade-deadline deal with the Rangers for Kevin Hayes. A few months later, defenceman Jacob Trouba was dealt to the Rangers, while winger Brandon Tanev and blue-liner Chiarot inked free-agent contracts elsewhere during the summer. Making matters much worse was the surprise departure of Byfuglien.
But Morrissey maintains the Jets are at their best when they're reaching supersonic speed, not waging a dogfight.
"When we’ve had success, it’s built around speed, being an extremely fast team and playing a fast game," he said. "Even when we’ve had our most success... it was based around a very competitive and fast game, and we maybe had the luxury of having a few players that could really throw the body. But I don’t think throwing the body was the reason we had success."
The Jets, 37-28-6 and in fourth place in the Central Division before the mid-March stoppage of play, had high hopes heading into the series with the Flames (36-27-7). However, losing centre Mark Scheifele to an injury early in the first period of Game 1 after a hit from Tkachuk was a major dagger, and missing scoring right-winger Patrik Laine due to a hand injury compounded their misery.
Morrissey said 'next man up' was the mantra during an injury-plagued season for the Jets, however, in reality watching Scheifele writhe in pain and learning their finest skater would be sidelined indefinitely was a blow to the team's talent level and psyche.
"You can’t just treat it as ‘OK, a star player goes down, the season’s done.’ You still have to play, and the other team doesn’t care about that. At the end of the day, once it’s over and obviously looking back, it’s pretty easy to see that it was a massive loss for our team, especially the way it happened. Sitting there on the bench, we all get into game mentality, game mode and the intensity of the game, but when you see a player in that kind of pain, for me, one of my best friends, it’s tough to watch, it’s tough to see, it’s scary," he said.
Last September, Winnipeg locked up Morrissey with a long-term deal worth US$50 million that carries an annual cap hit of US$6.25 million through the 2027-28 season. A few weeks later, he was given an 'A' as alternate captain.
The Calgary product, selected by the Jets in the first round (13th overall) in 2013, said he wore it with a ton of pride.
"You know, I love wearing the letter. You want to bring your best game, you want to work as hard as you can, you want to try to be a leader and I feel like there's a level of accountability there with a letter on your jersey," he said. "Because, in my opinion, you can't ask someone to follow you or you can't ask someone to do something different or encourage someone to do something, whatever — unless you're doing it yourself.
"I think I'll continue to learn as a leader. I feel like you never kind of just figure it out — it's not like a math equation. I feel like there's a constant level of trial and error, of learning with it, but it's something that, again, I take a lot of pride in, for sure."
Winnipeg has loaned Ville Heinola to Rauman Lukko for the beginning of the 2020-21 Finnish premier-league season.
Under the agreement, the 19-year-old defenceman, the Jets' first-round pick (20th overall) in the 2019 NHL Draft, would return to Winnipeg when the '20-21 season begins in North America.
All-star goalie Connor Hellebuyck, injured centre Bryan Little and veteran blue-liner Anthony Bitetto have won the Jets' regular-season, year-end awards.
Hellebuyck earned the Three Stars Award for receiving the most 'Three Stars' honours. He ranked at or near the top of the league in wins (31), goals-against average (2.57), save percentage (.922), and shutouts (6), and is one of three finalists for the Vezina Trophy as the league's top puckstopper.
Little won the Community Service Award for his commitment to the community. Despite being out with head and ear injuries, he was once again a strong supporter of the local military, True North Youth Foundation and the Project 11 program, which helps support students and teachers in bringing mental health awareness and positive coping skills into their lives.
Bitetto earned the Dan Snyder Memorial Award, which honours the player "who embodies perseverance, dedication and hard work without reward or recognition, so that his team and teammates might succeed."
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).
Updated on Wednesday, August 12, 2020 at 8:24 PM CDT: Adds photos
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