Josh Morrissey’s rookie campaign has been overshadowed by the play of the league’s other top freshmen, but the Jets blueliner continues to turn heads with his progression as the season wears on.
Almost all the talk in Winnipeg this season has been about Jets rookie sniper Patrik Laine, and rightfully so. He’s leading all rookies with 32 goals and 59 points in 59 games, he’s already emerging as one of the top power play threats in the league and while he still makes the odd mistake, he’s seemingly improving with each passing game.
But lost in the Laine hype is that rookie rearguard Josh Morrissey is himself turning into quite the special player.
Contributing to the great strides he has taken this season was his time in the AHL. The 13th overall pick in the 2013 draft, the expectation may have been that Morrissey would forego the AHL and make the NHL jump out of junior. Instead, Morrissey spent all but one game of 2015-16, his first as a pro, with the Manitoba Moose, where he scored three goals and 22 points in 57 games. More important than his statistical achievements, though, was that Morrissey got the chance to work out the differences between the pro game and the WHL, where he had spent the past four years of his career.
“That was huge for me, was just being able to focus on those areas I really needed to focus on,” Morrissey said in February. “Also, I think it’s really about how you take it as a player, and how I think I tried to every day come to the rink ready to get better and learn. That really benefited me.”
How it helped Morrissey has become increasingly evident. Though Tuesday’s result against the San Jose Sharks was unfavorable — a 3-2 Jets loss — Morrissey was one of the standouts. His goal early in the game tied the contest at one, and Morrissey nearly scored an all-world tally late in the game, dancing in on goal after slipping the puck through the feet of Sharks defenseman Paul Martin. It’s been a steady build throughout the year, but a game like that, where Morrissey was arguably the best defenseman on the ice in a game that included Brent Burns, is something Jets fans saw coming.
“Individually, I’m starting to be a little more aggressive offensively as the year has gone on, and I think I’m starting to see a little more of that side of my game,” Morrissey said. “After the all-star break, the pace of the games picked up even another level, and as a young player it’s just adapting, trying to soak it all in and use your ears and not your mouth.”
It’s clear Morrissey is starting to gain that belief in his offensive game at this level, too. In his past 10 games, he’s scored twice and added two assists. That brings him to four goals and 17 points through 67 games and puts him on pace to nearly match his AHL total from 2015-16. Reaching this point has been trial and error, Morrissey said, learning what works and what doesn’t at the NHL level, what an offensive-minded blueliner can get away with and what he can’t. What he’s thankful for is that he’s been given the chance to learn what exactly he can do with the puck on his stick playing against the best players in the world.
At the start of the campaign, Morrissey was bouncing up and down the depth chart, but with the season nearly over, he’s averaging more than 19 minutes per game. The coaching staff has given him the opportunity to be a part of the Jets’ top two pairings, which in turn has given him the confidence to make plays and take a few risks with the puck. That’s played a big role in Morrissey’s ability to showcase his ability as a legitimate top four defender.
“It’s huge. That’s all in the game you want, a chance to play and a chance to show yourself,” Morrissey said. “(You want) that confidence from the coaching staff.”
It’s not just that Morrissey is playing, though, but who he’s been playing with. He said being able to skate alongside Dustin Byfuglien, who was Morrissey’s partner for much of the season, helped him in his development. And that has shown as Morrissey has been as good as he was with Byfuglien, if not better, while skating alongside Jacob Trouba over recent outings. The unit wasn’t on ice for a goal against in Tuesday’s game and over the combined 182 minutes they’ve played at 5-on-5, the duo has been a stellar possession-driving pair.
Morrissey won’t finish among the Calder Trophy leaders, nor will he even sniff a vote when it comes to the Norris. But what he has accomplished this season statistically, and the way he has continuously improved throughout the campaign, gives Jets fans a glimpse of what looks to be a bright, bright future for the young defenseman. And Morrissey doesn’t plan on stopping until he reaches his full potential.
“I’m happy with my progression this year,” Morrissey said. “But I’m not satisfied. I want to get better and keep going to that next level.”
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