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This article was published 17/1/2020 (249 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It’s no secret that among the positive surprises on the Jets this season, Josh Morrissey hasn’t been one of them. Losing both his defence partner Jacob Trouba and the defensive depth that supported the Jets’ top pairing from last season, Morrissey has seemed crushed under the weight and pressure of being the lynchpin of the Jets’ defence for much of the season.
The emergence of Neal Pionk has been a bright spot that has allowed the Jets to remain competitive for a playoff spot on the back of a brilliant season from Connor Hellebuyck, but if the Jets hope to be anything more than an easy out in Round 1, they’re going to need a lot more out of Morrissey.
Looking at what he was able to accomplish last season, it’s a bit startling how much he’s struggled this season — or at least how much the Jets have struggled with him on the ice.
Morrissey’s on-ice differentials are worse in every area. He’s only managed to stem the bleeding a fair amount in terms of slot passes, but the shot-based metrics are rough.
The biggest area of struggle has been the inner-slot shot differential, where he has gone from posting the top numbers of any Jets defenceman last season to the second-worst this now, after Tucker Poolman.
Losing Trouba has made Morrissey’s job much more difficult this season. Losing Dustin Byfuglien has made it much more difficult too, because having a second pairing that can share in some of the tough assignments is another kind of insulation he no longer has. However, not everything can be placed at the feet of the situation he’s been put in, can it?
How has Morrissey’s performance changed year over year to account for such a massive change?
For starters, separating the biggest problem area into offensive and defensive performance will give us a better idea of where the struggles are centred and, as it turns out, both offence and defence have been problematic.
With Morrissey on the ice this season, the Jets are getting 30.7 per cent fewer inner-slot shots compared to last season and are allowing 20.1 per cent more inner-slot shots against.
Morrissey’s dropoff has mainly come in two areas: his transition play and his physical play.
In transition, he’s commanding the zones far less than he was last season when he was the Jets’ premier zone-exit defenceman and an above-average skater to join the rush and enter the offensive zone. Being able to carry the puck is a luxury for a defenceman in today’s game, since most coaches prefer either a pass or a rim off the glass and out, and it was a big part of Morrissey’s game last season.
Morrissey is an aggressive player by nature, and that trait holds for his physicality. Last season he was a highly engaged player at defending passes, blocking more per 20 minutes than almost every other defenceman in the league at even-strength. This year, he’s fallen of by a wide margin and is now closer to the 70th percentile.
Winning puck battles was also huge for him last season. He engaged more than 85 per cent of the rest of the league did and he won a solid 40.1 per cent of the battles he was in. While you might think winning less than 50 per cent is low, there are three outcomes of a puck battle; winning, losing and a tie, where neither team gains immediate possession.
This season, his win percentage is way down to 28.8 per cent, which is in the bottom 20 per cent of the league.
These changes are all significant and, in my opinion, they’re all related. Interestingly, Morrissey has dramatically increased the rate at which he uses his stick to check as opposed to engaging physically. Morrissey’s involvement in puck battles has dropped by more than 25 per cent and his use of his stick to check opponents is up by more than 20 per cent.
We can’t write off the lower level of performance as entirely Morrissey’s fault. All of these plays have one thing in common; you need to have trust in your partner in order to take the risks involved to make them.
Engaging physically draws you out of safe defending position; you need to trust that your defence partner can cover for you in case you get beat until you can recover. Blocking passes requires a more aggressive physical posture than simply being in the lanes and playing it safe. It’s about forcing mistakes and making yourself big. If the puck gets through you though, you’re in a worse position, so you have to trust your partner.
Just like playing physically, carrying the puck carries an intrinsic positional risk if you make a mistake and turn the puck over. If you’re going to carry the puck out of the defensive zone, especially as a defenceman, you have to be confident in the last man back to cover for any potential mistakes.
Note that the only defenceman who has been beaten up in the inner slot more than Morrissey this season is Poolman, who has been his partner most often.
Together, Morrissey and Poolman have an expected goals-for percentage of just 41.3 per cent at even-strength by SPORTLOGiQ’s metrics, which is worse than their actual performance of 47.7 per cent. That means things could look even worse than they already do.
Last season with Trouba, Morrissey posted an expected goals-for percentage of 54.7 per cent, and it’s not like that was Trouba carrying things, because he’s floating between a 43 per cent and 44 per cent expected goal rate with the Rangers this season as well. Both players are struggling without the other.
The Jets clearly don’t have another Trouba waiting in the wings to complement Morrissey and let him fly, but what we do know is that Poolman just does not work there. His injury has forced a change, so it will be interesting to see if Morrissey can find another gear with a new partner.
Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.
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