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This article was published 7/8/2018 (535 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Josh Morrissey is a nice guy.
He’s maybe even the nicest guy in the Winnipeg Jets dressing room, if one can quantify such things.
He’s gracious with his time. He’s generous with a smile. He seems, at all times, to be genuinely happy to be doing what he’s doing — which is being an elite defenceman in the NHL — and to be doing it in Winnipeg.
But the thing about Morrissey’s nice guy shtick is it makes it all the more shocking when, on occasion, he breaks from character and exhibits a side that is the opposite of nice.
Last season, that moment came in Game 4 of the opening round of the playoffs when, for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear, Morrissey hunted down Minnesota Wild forward Eric Staal in front of the Jets net and viciously cross-checked him in the face and neck.
It was a piece of savagery that would have been shocking even coming from someone known to be a dirty player. It was made all the more so in this instance because a nice guy like Morrissey is the kind you don’t expect to lose his mind and attempt to remove an opponent’s head from his shoulders.
That darker side is on display again this summer, only this time, we’re seeing it off the ice.
If you’d taken a poll at the start of the off-season and asked Jets fans which of the long list of players the team needed to re-sign this summer was going to be the most problematic to get a deal done, I’d venture Morrissey would have been one of the last names mentioned.
Jacob Trouba? Well, yeah, you knew that was going to be a nightmare. Connor Hellebuyck? The guy was coming off a record-breaking season, and no one would have been surprised if he took the Jets to the wall and beyond.
It seemed just a matter of time before he and the Jets agreed to one of two things: either a short-term bridge deal that would save the Jets some badly needed cap space over the next couple seasons while giving Morrissey a chance to bet on himself in the years to come; or a long-term deal that would have come with a major cap hit for the Jets but ensured Morrissey is a part of this team’s foundation for years to come.
Or so you would have thought.
It’s now the second week of August, a month when the entire NHL traditionally shuts down and goes fishing, and Morrissey is not only still unsigned, he’s become the last item still left to do on general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff’s list. It’s become not only conceivable but increasingly probable the Winnipeg Jets will head into September with Morrissey still unsigned, and training camp looming.
If that sounds frighteningly familiar to a Jets fan, it should — that’s exactly what also happened two years ago with Trouba.
If you’ve tried to bury that memory, here’s a refresher: Trouba headed into that off-season as a restricted free agent seeking a new contract after the expiration of his entry-level deal. With no rights to arbitration at that point, Trouba’s options were limited: either sign a deal with the Jets or be a holdout.
We all know how that turned out. Trouba refused to report to training camp and ultimately missed the first 15 games of the 2016-17 regular season, before he came crawling back and signed a two-year deal.
Morrissey is similarly constrained in his negotiations this summer: he also has no rights to arbitration and he also really has no card to play if he chooses not to re-sign, other than holding out.
He does not seem the holding-out type, but he also didn’t seem a cross-check-you-in-the-face kind of guy either — until, of course, he was.
He’s surprised us before and so one cannot discount the possibility he will not surprise us again. And it would be a nightmare for the Jets if he did.
It’s worth remembering Trouba’s holdout came in a rebuilding season. His absence was noted and costly, but the Jets weren’t going to make many waves in 2016-17 anyway, even with Trouba for the full season.
But this coming season is very different — even critical — for the Jets. Coming off an appearance in the Western Conference final last spring, and staring down a salary cap crunch next summer, the 2018-19 season could be the Jets last, best chance to put together a Stanley Cup run.
It’s not now or never. This is a good young Jets team and it will be for a long time to come. But things are only going to get harder, not easier, after this season, and the Jets know it and need to strike now.
Morrissey, of course, is a huge part of that as one-half of the Jets' top defensive pairing, alongside Trouba. And so any scenario other than Morrissey reporting next month for training camp, on schedule and under contract, would be a huge blow.
There’s no reason for panic yet. There’s lots of players every year in Morrissey’s situation who have headed into September unsigned, only to get a deal done in the days leading up to training camp.
A holdout like Trouba’s is the very notable exception, not the rule. And while Morrissey has surprised us before, I just don’t see him cross-checking Chevy in the face, the way he did Staal.
Still, it’s no accident we’ve reached this point, which was Morrissey’s explanation about the hit on Staal.
This time we are seeing a part of Morrissey he has put on display very much by design.
He’s a nice guy, sure. But Morrissey also knows as well as anyone that in the NHL, nice guys finish last.
Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.
Updated on Tuesday, August 7, 2018 at 11:37 PM CDT: fixed typo