That phrase is mentioned a lot around the Pittsburgh Penguins facilities these days.
General Manager Ray Shero tries to build competition into the roster with the hope of artificially creating this so-called ‘compete level’ amongst his players.
But it’s also an inherent trait in certain people. You either have it or you don’t.
Believe it or not, Penguins’ scouts might be more interested in how a prospect plays during the third period of a 6-1 blowout loss than the third period of a tie game. Does the player keep fighting for loose pucks with total disregard for the insurmountable deficit? Or does he take a penalty out of frustration so he can hit the showers early?
These moments have a way of revealing character traits like compete level that oftentimes never show up in a box score.
As a hockey fan, there are some games you never forget.
For me, one was in May 2008. That season I got into the habit of watching the San Jose Sharks quite a bit. They were a fun team. Joe Thornton’s playmaking was sublime and Evgeni Nabokov was in his prime. The roster was loaded with talent. The Sharks felt like the eventual Stanley Cup champion and reeled off a number of long winning streaks as they waltzed through the regular season.
And then they ran into the Dallas Stars.
The second round series between San Jose and Dallas was one of the most entertaining playoff series I’ve ever seen.
It culminated in Game 6 with outrageous goaltending performances from Nabokov and his counterpart Marty Turco. As regulation time wound down in a 1-1 tie game, the fans in Dallas were stuck in that half nervous, half anxious state that comes with playoff hockey. During every scramble in front of Turco, a handful of female Dallas fans screamed in terror. With every innocent save by Nabokov, thousands of fans yelled “OHHH!” as if they thought the shot should have gone in.
The American Airlines Center was bubbling with anticipation. The crowd was standing, ready to erupt.
And then they did…
In Game 6, compete level actually did show up on the scoresheet.
Brenden Morrow had 18 hits in the game in addition to the one above (no other player had more than 7) and also netted the game-winner in the fourth overtime to send the Stars to the next round. A dominating performance.
The Sharks had a ton of talent, but they didn’t have a player like Brenden Morrow.
Look at his face after delivering the hit on Michalek. He’s out of breath, but almost oozing adrenaline and determination.
That’s exactly why the Penguins acquired Morrow from Dallas on Sunday.
They paid a hefty price — something we’ll analyze in depth later this week — but with Morrow they added those intangible elements that can be the difference between a really talented team and one that wins the Stanley Cup.
“I was looking to add a player like a Brenden Morrow,” Shero said Sunday evening after announcing the trade. “The way he plays the game is something we identified. The competitive spirit that we’re looking for. The physical nature of his game. He’s a guy that goes to those dirty areas and when you get to the playoffs that’s an important aspect of what we’re trying to do.”
What always caught my attention during Morrow’s time in Dallas was his ability to excel alongside talented, creative players.
Morrow had amazing chemistry with center Mike Ribeiro for a number of years before Ribeiro was traded to Washington last summer. At just under 180 pounds, Ribeiro is what you might call an ‘east-west player’ — someone who creates space for himself by weaving and cutting back and forth across the ice. East-west players can actually be some of the toughest to play with because you can’t predict where they’ll be from one second to the next.
Sidney Crosby, a talented north-south type player, is methodical in his dominance. He tells his linemates to go to certain places on the ice and then he picks apart a defense like a surgeon.
Evgeni Malkin, on the other hand, is more in the mold of Ribeiro. His offensive brilliance is spontaneous and often has a flair for the dramatic. Malkin doesn’t want the puck where he is right now. He expects you to read his mind and know where he’s going to be. When you can’t, you’ll get the cold shoulder for the next three shifts.
There’s a reason dozens of wingers have come and gone from his line over the years. It takes a special type of player to not only survive, but excel alongside a Ribeiro or Malkin.
According to Matt Niskanen, Morrow is that type of player.
“I think he feeds well off skilled players who like to dish and handle the puck,” Niskanen said. “He knows how to find open space in the offensive zone and he doesn’t need a whole lot of time or space to get his shot off. He’s a north-south player and does a lot of the dirty work to create room for his teammates out there.”
Teams have been gameplanning to limit Malkin’s time and space and his scoring totals are down a bit this season as a result. Adding a player like Morrow to the line to draw attention from opponents should allow Malkin to return to his magical form.
Whether Morrow still has the speed to keep up with a player like Malkin or James Neal is up for debate, but Morrow’s style of play should allow him fit seamlessly on a third line as well if necessary.
The Penguins swept two games from the Boston Bruins earlier this month that kickstarted their current 13-game winning streak. The games were tight-checking and physical, but featured teams that intimidated in different ways.
Boston used their size and physicality to punish, while Pittsburgh used their speed to run circles around Zdeno Chara and the Bruins defense.
The biggest concern I had coming out of those games was the Penguins’ apparent lack of a third line with identity. Adding Morrow gives them that identity — the extra swagger that can be tough to define, but you know it when you see it.
“He just brings that extra something to the ice and in the dressing room,” Niskanen said. “That x-factor of veteran leadership.”
For the past 14 years, Brendan Morrow has only known the Dallas Stars.
He began his journey to Pittsburgh on Monday morning with an early flight. His family — wife Anne-Marie, 8-year-old daughter Bryelle, and 4-year-old twins Brody and Mallory — all stayed behind.
After landing in Atlanta for his layover, Morrow’s phone buzzed with a text message from his wife. The text read:
Bryelle came into the room two minutes after you left and saw me crying and said: ‘Mom, it’s going to be okay, it’s only a couple months, and he has a chance to win the Cup’.
That hunger for the elusive Stanley Cup is what prompted Morrow to waive his no-trade clause for Pittsburgh.
He began his career in Dallas in 1999, just after the Stars won the Cup. The follow-up team was still loaded with talent but they fell short in their quest for a repeat. It’s never easy to get back to the summit after you’ve already been there before.
Morrow’s never made it to the top and that’s another reason Shero wanted to add him to a Penguins core that already has rings from their 2009 championship.
He’s no longer the same player he once was — the 30-goal-scoring terror that could carry an entire team on his back — but Morrow wants to find his spot on the roster and contribute in any way possible.
“I know all the skill and talent this locker room has,” Morrow said. “I think my job is just to drive to the net with my stick on the ice and let things hit me and that makes it pretty easy. I’ve been on teams before in the Olympics where you find a role and do whatever it takes. I want to win a Cup.”
And who knows, maybe a change of scenery could invigorate the 34-year-old. It worked for Bill Guerin. Morrow said he’s experienced a sense of uncertainty the past few days that he hasn’t dealt with in years.
“These jitters, these nerves, I had them riding to the rink yesterday and I hadn’t felt them in a long time. Those are good feelings. They’re maybe not the best feelings in your body, but you know you’re alive when those butterflies show up.”
On Tuesday night, Morrow made his debut with the Penguins and played just 12:55 alongside a variety of linemates. He said his legs were a little tired from all the travel but loved the energy that came from a team trying to extend the league’s longest winning streak this season.
“It kind of felt like a playoff game, to be honest,” Morrow said. “Every shift mattered. You were on your feet every scoring chance. It’s a fun feeling.”
Sounds a little like ‘Game 6 Brenden Morrow’, doesn’t it?
The Penguins can only hope.