Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon got most of the headlines in recent months as the Winnipeg Jets re-tooled their blue-line. And there's no question both newcomers have provided an early-season boost. But what if the biggest add to the back-end has actually been a drafted and developed talent already in the fold?
We're looking at you, Josh Morrissey.
After a tough couple years on and off the ice, the 26-year-old first-rounder has seemingly reverted to previous premium form. Morrissey is on pace for career highs in goals, assists and points and currently sits second-overall in the entire NHL in plus-minus (plus-13). He's formed a terrific top-pairing with Schmidt, one that's coming off arguably their best game together in which they neutralized Connor McDavid and company during five-on-five play in an impressive 5-2 victory over the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday. The victory vaulted Winnipeg into top spot in the Central Division with a 9-3-3 record.
"It's a function of your team. We've got a really good team here." — Josh Morrissey
"It's a function of your team. We've got a really good team here," the modest Morrissey said following Wednesday's optional practice at Canada Life Centre. "I'm happy with how it's going but I think it's more of a function of our team playing really well and winning hockey games."
Morrissey set up the latest game-winner on a beautiful slap-pass to Pierre-Luc Dubois, notching his fifth assist, and eighth point, in 15 games. Following the game, Dubois joked that Morrissey's one-timer has become so feared around the league — he's already scored a trio of goals with it — that teammates have started calling him "J-Movechkin."
"It's pretty funny. Obviously, Ovie is probably one of the best goal scorers to ever play the game so the guys that are joking around with that… I've had a lot worse nicknames, so we'll leave it at that," said Morrissey. "It's fun and I'm enjoying the banter and enjoying kind of that spot and shooting the puck. It's been fun, but the guys are all over that one right now."
Morrissey, an alternate captain who is in the second year of an eight-year, US$50 million extension, admittedly didn't have a lot of fun last year. His father and role model, Tom, was battling brain cancer, a fight made all the more difficult by COVID-19 restrictions which had the Jets playing an all-Canadian slate inside empty rinks but unable to spend quality time with loved ones due to the risk of infection. Sadly, the elder Morrissey succumbed to the disease last August.
Morrissey's play slipped as well as coach Paul Maurice tried to find him a quality fit following the June 2019 trade of Jacob Trouba. Tucker Poolman spent the most time on his right side, which led to a noticeable dip in performance. But after a bit of a resurgence during the stretch run and playoffs last spring, Morrissey's game has taken an even bigger leap this fall with the clean slate the 2021-22 campaign provided.
"I think he always felt there was more. We did, but we were fine if there wasn’t," Maurice said Wednesday. "And then I think he started that process of thinking of himself as an offensive guy and right now he’s got a really good blend of the two. He pushes the offensive game when it’s the right time. He’s not trying to figure it out, if it’s there he goes, if it’s not he doesn’t. And the other parts of his game are bang on."
"... I think he started that process of thinking of himself as an offensive guy and right now he’s got a really good blend of the two. He pushes the offensive game when it’s the right time." — Jets head coach Paul Maurice
Schmidt has been the perfect partner, leading all Jets defencemen with 11 points. Along with Morrissey's eight, that's nearly half of Winnipeg's 40 combined points from rear-guards through 15 games, which is near the top of the NHL and nearly half of last year's production over a 56-game slate. It's not just the offence, but the ability to have smoother exits out of the zone and get the puck quickly up to Winnipeg's deep, talented crop of forwards. And Morrissey and Schmidt, along with the second-pairing of Dillon and Neal Pionk, have done that in spades.
"There's always certain nights where, depending on who you're playing against or the style of the game, certain things are going to be more prevalent, whether it's breakouts or defending the rush or in-zone defending or maybe the O-zone play as well. But I thought (Tuesday) night we kind of had a good mix of everything.," said Morrissey, who lit up McDavid with a big hit early in the game that seemed to set the tone.
"Obviously, when you play against the Oilers, the type of talent they have up front, specifically with McDavid and Draisaitl, it's about as tough a test that you get in the league. So, I thought we did a really good job defending as five and having all five guys committed to playing the game hard defensively. I think Nate and I are continuing to build chemistry and the more reps you get together, the more situations you're in together, your reads just become automatic and it's been fun. So we're trending in the right direction. There's still some things we can improve on, which is great."
Maurice admitted he wasn't entirely sure Morrissey-Schmidt would be set in stone when the trade happened during the off-season. In fact, he thought Morrissey and Pionk might end up together, with Dillon and Schmidt rounding out the top four. But after putting them together in training camp, it was clear they worked extremely well together.
"Nate Schmidt is a really good defenceman for Josh today. But he may not have been the right pair for him four years ago," said Maurice. "So he got all of these defensive things figured out with another guy that was learning, but Jake’s got a little bit more of that physicality than Mo. But now, Josh Morrissey doesn’t need help, and Nate can play his own game. There’s also maybe more risk in Nate’s game than there is in Josh’s game, but both of them balance really well."
Morrissey and his teammates will look to keep it rolling when they face the Oilers Thursday night in a re-match. After that, it's a quick turnaround with a Friday night tilt in Vancouver against the Canucks.
As for his suddenly booming shot, Morrissey admits he's added some velocity this year, which is unusual for a player to do at his age and at this level.
"I changed a couple of things in the summer. Went to a different stick construction and worked on my shot a lot. So far, I've been happy with how it's going," said Morrissey. "It's nice to be able to add something throughout your career, keep working on your game. So far, that's paid off a little bit for me. That's always a nice feel, always rewarding that the work you're putting in is paying off."
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.