Mark Morrison admits he’s trying to keep a relatively low profile these days, knowing not many players want to spend a whole lot of time working with him. After all, they’re trying to make the Winnipeg Jets. And he just so happens to be the new bench boss of the Manitoba Moose.
Talk about a potential party pooper.
"One of the things here, is these guys have worked hard all summer long and their focus is the Winnipeg Jets. So I have conversations with them but they’re short. And their focus is on the Jets, it’s not on the Moose," Morrison said following Sunday’s pro minicamp session at Bell MTS Place.
"I want to give them that time they deserve. So haven’t spent a whole lot of time in deep."
There will be a time and a place for that, of course, once the big-league roster starts to sort itself out prior to the start of the NHL regular-season on Oct. 13. That process begins on Thursday when 45 players hit the ice for Jets training camp, including 21 young skaters who wrap up this five-day orientation session on Monday.
A good chunk of those will likely end up in Morrison’s hands down on the farm this coming season. And the 58-year-old, who previously served as an assistant with the Moose before spending the past four years as an assistant coach with the Anaheim Ducks, should have no shortage of skill to work with.
"You know what, early days for me. I did see on Day 2, I went up to watch the defence corps and they look real mobile for a defence corps and a young group. That was nice to see. Other than that and besides the compete drills, there hasn’t really been a lot to evaluate from," said Morrison, who takes over from Pascal Vincent after he was hired as an assistant coach with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
"It’s important for the players to get up to speed a little bit. The Jets’ coaches, Paul (Maurice) is running them through some drills to get their hands going, so that they’re up to speed when they get to main camp. So, as far as the players go, that’s an important thing for them."
The battle-level was cranked to maximum on Sunday for a series of intense one-on-one drills pitting forwards against defencemen. There was a clear take-no-prisoners approach, including plenty of hard contact and several sticks and elbows to the schnoz as everyone tried to show their best selves.
"It’s good though. It gets us ready for camp and we’re going to be doing those battles at camp, too," said 24-year-old defenceman Johnathan Kovacevic. "There’s certain things, I know I haven’t done those one-on-one battles, certainly, since last season. It’s good to get warmed up and get the gears moving for camp."
Kovacevic, a third-round pick by the Jets in 2017, doesn’t always get mentioned in conversations about Winnipeg’s best blue-line prospects. Most of that focus is on Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg, who was paired with Kovacevic for much of last year with the Moose.
"I think we’re similar type of players, and because of that we kind of think the game similarly. And that definitely helps when you’re playing with a guy and you’re just on the same wavelength," said Kovacevic.
"We’re both big guys who can move and have a tight gap, just kind of play both sides of the puck as well. I feel like it was a good fit. We didn’t give the other team much time and we took advantage when we got the puck, breaking pucks out and getting in the O-zone. Kind of being similar players. I know sometimes you want complementary pieces, like different types of players. But I found for us it worked really well because we were similar and able to read off each other in that way."
Kovacevic, a right-shot with terrific mobility for his size (6-4, 208-pounds) has played himself on to the Jets radar. He had two goals and 12 assists in 29 Moose games and will no doubt see action in some of the six pre-season games which begin Sunday and run through early October.
"I’m eager and excited. I feel like that’s where really you can show what you can do," he said of getting his first taste of NHL action. "I haven’t any specific talks with them or anything like that. I try not to play the numbers game, I feel like that can sometimes distract myself. I’m just trying to do what I can and worry about what I can control and the rest will just take it from there."
With the likes of Heinola, Samberg and Kovacevic along with other promising young prospects such as Leon Gawanke and Declan Chisholm, Morrison could be looking at the makings of a dominant defence core.
"I feel like everyone believes they’re a good player and it’s another thing to prove it to yourself, too. Even before last season, I knew how good I was, but to prove it to myself that kind of gives you another level of confidence," said Kovacevic. "And then this offseason, just wanted to build off that and hopefully have a strong showing here at camp and show the Jets coaches and staff what I’ve been working on as well."
Morrison said communication will be key in these early days, especially with a learning curve for both him and the crop of new skaters he will be leading.
"I’m really big on making relationships with players, especially young players. That’s part of the development. When you build a relationship with one of them, they will start to trust you, they’ll listen to you, they’re easier to coach. And sometimes you have to come down a little bit harder on them and they know that you actually care. I think the relationship building is huge," he said.
Even if it’s going to have to wait a bit longer as he patiently lets the process play out.
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.