Josh Morrissey can’t take any sort of step back this year. The Winnipeg Jets can’t afford it.
Morrissey is coming off a quietly successful rookie season with the Jets. He wasn’t a serious Calder Trophy contender at any point, but he was a surprisingly stabilizing force on the back end.
Morrissey put up small but encouraging point totals on little to no power play time with strong underlying numbers while giving the Jets another potent option on the left side and playing all 82 games. By year’s end, he was the Jets’ best left-side defenseman and had formed an effective pairing with fellow first-round pick Jacob Trouba.
Josh Morrissey – Jacob Trouba
— Arctic Ice Hockey (@arcticicehockey) July 2, 2017
Morrissey is young, skilled, and at times nasty. If he takes a step forward this season, or even plays the same way he did last year, the Jets’ back end will be much more secure. On the other hand, it’s scary to think what could happen if he suffers a sophomore slump.
The Morrissey Show
To be clear, the team’s success or failure doesn’t rest on Morrissey’s shoulders. Nor does the success or failure of the defense. That would be putting undue pressure on the 22-year-old from Calgary. However, if you look at the Jets’ left side on the blue line, you realize how important Morrissey really is.
Toby Enstrom is aging and coming off a couple of bad seasons riddled with injury. Ben Chiarot is likely to be the 7th d-man and can’t be counted on to take up too much slack. Dmitry Kulikov will not likely be as bad as he was in Buffalo last year, but even at his best, he’s a third or fourth pairing defenseman who wasn’t signed to be anything more. On the left side, the defense belongs to Morrissey.
The biggest reason Morrissey will be as good or better next year is that he must be. The Jets are in real trouble if he isn’t. If he doesn’t lead the defense on the left side, the team can’t count on anyone else to.
You can roll your eyes and argue that any team relying on a 22-year-old sophomore is playing with fire. But the Jets, in general, are led by young players now. Blake Wheeler notwithstanding, most of the team’s premium talent in any position is under 25.
Poised and Confident
Morrissey hasn’t exactly put himself in position for the dreaded sophomore slump. His rookie season was marked not by absurdly hot streaks but by consistent positive progress. By the end of the year, his offensive skills that were so impressive in junior were starting to show again.
Much like his first pro season with the Moose, he started off slowly but trended steadily upward as the year went on. Fourteen of his 20 points came in the new year. His physicality started to come back as he got more confident too.
Morrissey’s rookie season was not one that burned brightly and quickly but an exercise in gradual, steady improvement. The sophomore slump is tough to predict, but his rookie year is the type that lends itself to a good follow-up. And his demeanor and style of play make you wonder if he might wear a letter on his Jets jersey one day. It’s too early to award him one yet, but he’s headed that way.
Jets fans can’t expect the moon and stars right away, but it’s worth remembering that there were no expectations on Morrissey last year. He wasn’t even supposed to make the team out of camp prior to the Trouba holdout.
Low expectations may have helped him surprise people. He garnered few headlines (or at least far fewer than the eye-popping rookie season of Patrik Laine) and he may be the kind of player who does his best in that setting.
This year, Morrissey won’t take anybody by surprise, and expectations have been raised. Of course, with Trouba also trending steadily upward, some of the pressure will be lifted but there is undeniable pressure on Morrissey now. The left side on defense will be stronger with Kulikov joining the fold, but Morrissey is the best player on that left side and likely will be for years to come. If he takes a step back, so will the Jets, defensively.
On the other hand, consider the alternative. If Morrissey keeps his calm, poised game from last year and contributes offensively, something he was known for in junior and started to show late last year, the Jets will have another true stud on the back end.
A top pair of Morrissey and Trouba was once a tantalizing thought for the future of the Jets. The future is now, and for those two it’s brighter than ever.