May 22, 2019

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Young Morrissey playing like a vet

Blue-liner, just 23, handles increased workload

Josh Morrissey defends against Florida Panthers' Aleksander Barkov in Helsinki. (Martti Kainulainen / Lehtikuva Files)</p>

Josh Morrissey defends against Florida Panthers' Aleksander Barkov in Helsinki. (Martti Kainulainen / Lehtikuva Files)

Josh Morrissey has already established himself as a difficult defenceman to play against because he does most things well — some at an elite level.

He’s a two-way hockey talent, shrewd in his own end, not prone to making ghastly mistakes, and a dynamic skater and puck-mover who is averaging more than 22 minutes of ice time a night on a stacked Winnipeg Jets blue line.

Head coach Paul Maurice figures at the rate the 13th overall pick in the 2013 NHL draft is progressing, he’s only going to get tougher on NHL forwards as time goes on.

But he isn’t even 24 yet. And therein lies the danger. How much is too much for a 6-0, 195-pound defender who is already carting around a massive ice-time burden on his shoulders?

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Josh Morrissey has already established himself as a difficult defenceman to play against because he does most things well — some at an elite level.

He’s a two-way hockey talent, shrewd in his own end, not prone to making ghastly mistakes, and a dynamic skater and puck-mover who is averaging more than 22 minutes of ice time a night on a stacked Winnipeg Jets blue line.

Head coach Paul Maurice figures at the rate the 13th overall pick in the 2013 NHL draft is progressing, he’s only going to get tougher on NHL forwards as time goes on.

But he isn’t even 24 yet. And therein lies the danger. How much is too much for a 6-0, 195-pound defender who is already carting around a massive ice-time burden on his shoulders?

It’s a question Maurice, the rest of his coaching staff and Jets management wrestle with each time Morrissey hobbles to the bench after getting decked by a larger, heat-seeking power forward from the opposing side, or hops down the tunnel after instinctively going down to block a shot.

"He plays against the other teams’ best, he’s got one of the best defensive sticks in the league, he skates (and) he reads the play really well. He’s gotten the opportunity to get a little more power-play time, and over the next 23 years of his career, he’s going to get lots of that," Maurice said Thursday, sounding more like the player’s agent than his boss.

"Josh’s challenge is going to be rest and recovery for the rest of his career. The minutes he plays against the other teams’ best... he’s fit, plays hard, blocks shots, we’re just going to have to make sure we don’t burn him out."

Morrissey, paired with Jacob Trouba on the team’s top unit, refuses to play any other brand of hockey but warrior-style.

But it comes at a cost.

Just last week, he left the game early after taking a hard shot to the leg in the first period of the Jets’ 3-2 overtime loss to the visiting San Jose Sharks.

His absence — just the third game he’s missed during the 2018-19 season — two nights later wasn’t solely to blame for the Jets’ woeful performance in Montreal, but it certainly didn’t help matters. He returned to the lineup Saturday in Ottawa.

Morrissey is embracing the heavy responsibility, logging increased minutes at five on five, killing penalties and earning more of a role on the power play.

"It’s all a work in progress but it’s also about opportunity as well. I’m happy with the way the season has gone and the work we’re doing as a pairing and how comfortable we are. I think we both enjoy a lot of work," he said. "On an individual level, I feel really happy with the way my game has grown."

In his third season with the Jets, Morrissey has been sidelined for just four games. One of those was simply the coach’s prerogative to rest him in a meaningless matchup in Montreal just a week before the start of the playoffs last spring.

The Jets lean on him heavily. Behind him on the left side are Ben Chiarot, Dmitry Kulikov and Joe Morrow, all having solid seasons but none nearly the same, thorough package.

He’d already set a career mark for points (31) — the exact same as Trouba — prior to Thursday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche. He’s a plus-11, his turnover rates in dangerous areas are miniscule and he and his partner help generate plenty of chances in the opposing end.

Developing that sound defensive game, Morrissey has always maintained, was Job No. 1, while the offence would incrementally get better with experience and opportunity. And it has.

"He put up pretty good numbers in the Western Hockey League and we knew he had that game within himself. But at the NHL level, it’s tough to come in and immediately establish yourself as an offensive guy," Jets centre Adam Lowry said. "You have to build the other parts of your game, and I think he and Jacob together have grown into that top shutdown pair.

"Josh is so efficient with the puck, he’s got such a great stick, he doesn’t cheat in his own end to create offence. But he’s such a fluid skater that he’s able to make those plays at the line. Just look at that goal he set up in Buffalo, just threads the needle to Blake (Wheeler)."

Indeed, he orchestrated the winning goal against the Sabres with just 3:55 left in the game, driving up the boards from the left point and slipping a pass through the middle to the Jets captain, who was left unattended at the right post.

Is that a play Morrissey would have made in his rookie season? Or even this past October?

"Probably not. I think throughout my entire life I’ve been someone who doesn’t go for the flashiest play right off the bat. But once I get more comfortable in my league or surroundings, all of a sudden I process those things a little bit faster and those plays start to come out," Morrissey said.

"Now, being into my third year, I feel more confident with the puck. I’ve worked hard on my game during the off-season, studied the game, watched a lot of video to see where I can get more of those chances and what to do with them."

Last fall, Morrissey inked a two-year contract with the Jets that pays him US$3.15 million annually. It’s a bridge deal, one that saved the Jets money this year and next. But the young defenceman stands to receive a considerable raise as points pile up without risk to his stingy defensive side.

For now, future earnings remain out of sight, out of mind.

"Those things sort themselves over time. I’m just trying to become the best player I can be and see what that ceiling can be. The financial side of things coincides with that," he said. "I’m definitely working hard to prove myself as a player, and everything else comes from that."

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
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).

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