Is Morrow a Replacement for Beaulieu?

Joe Morrow flew under the radar relatively speaking, during a whirlwind summer for Montreal Canadiens fans. The big question is whether or not it was justified.

Morrow an NHL Defenseman?

Joe Morrow
Montreal Canadiens defenseman Joe Morrow – (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

At first glance, Morrow, who has yet to establish himself as an NHL defenseman at 24 years of age, was little more than a depth signing meant to hold the fort for the Laval Rocket in the American Hockey League. He played in just 17 games for the Boston Bruins in 2016-17 after all. He has never played in more than 33 NHL games in any one season, either.

However, his one-year, $650,000 contract is a one-way deal, meaning he will get paid the same no matter where he plays. Anywhere else that would be a sign the general manager has bigger plans for him. Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin has done this in the past though, giving one-way deals to players who were destined for the minors. Daniel Carr is one example. Sven Andrighetto, who ended up shining with the Colorado Avalanche despite playing 20 AHL games last year for the Habs is another.

It may be interpreted as a reward to the player in question or a deterrent to other teams when looking for cheap waiver wire pick-ups. Considering Morrow’s last deal with the Bruins (for $800,000) was also a one-way contract, in this specific case it’s safe to say it would have been hard for the still-young defenseman to sign for anything less than he did with the Habs.

It was an intriguing pick-up by Bergevin for many reasons. For example, Morrow had just a single assist last season. Secondly, his scouting report seems to hint at Morrow being the type of player Bergevin has proven to shy away from in the past, with “shy away from” being a cleverly disguised euphemism for “throw away like a facial tissue wrapped around a crushed bug.” Icky.

Morrow vs. Beaulieu

According to The Hockey News for example, Morrow is an “aggressive defenseman who can put up good numbers on offense… but must become a more consistent player in all areas of the game.”

Remind you of anyone? Maybe a certain ex-Habs defensemen who just established a career-high in points, but was unceremoniously dealt for a meager third-round pick in this year’s weak-to-begin-with NHL Entry Draft?

The similarities don’t end there between Morrow and Nathan Beaulieu, with both lefties being 2011 first-round picks. Beaulieu was taken at No. 17. Morrow was taken at No. 23 by the Pittsburgh Penguins, before being dealt to the Dallas Stars in the Brenden Morrow trade. He eventually landed in Boston as part of the Tyler Seguin deal.

So, if you weren’t a fan of Beaulieu’s and don’t consider the trade with the Buffalo Sabres a big loss, you’re probably looking at the net gain as somewhat of a wash. Out goes one defensively inconsistent player and in comes another who’s the same age and cheaper. Maybe that was Bergevin’s plan all along, and, if it was, it worked out perfectly.

Nathan Beaulieu
Nathan Beaulieu – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The problem though is it’s hard to understand his reasoning if Beaulieu absolutely had to go. If you’re acknowledging that your team is in need of a mobile defenseman, wouldn’t you keep the one you already had? Devil you know and all that good stuff?

It makes sense in one way, and that’s head coach Claude Julien, for whom Morrow played as a Bruin. In fact, Morrow played all 17 of his games last season under him, getting his last one in on January 22. Julien was fired by the Bruins on February 7. If you warp the glass in that manner, Morrow played in 17 of 50 games under Julien, which looks (just) slightly better.

So, maybe signing Morrow was just a way to get Julien a player in whom he saw potential (just 17 games’ worth in 50 total, it should be repeated, but I digress). Julien also notably scratched Beaulieu in the Canadiens’ season-ending loss to the New York Rangers. Does that still justify getting just a third-round pick in exchange?

Habs Hindsight Is 20/20

Imagine for a second that the NHL Expansion Draft wasn’t a factor and Bergevin didn’t have to trade Beaulieu leading up to it. In fact, logic dictates that it shouldn’t have been and he didn’t. That’s beside the main point though. Beaulieu’s career trajectory was pointing up. Morrow’s is in a holding pattern, if that. If he does manage to get regular playing time, he’ll have to leapfrog over at least a few of the five other left-handed defensemen on the roster. That’s hardly a vote of confidence in how Bergevin has built up his defense.

It’s easy to look back in retrospect and say no one could have predicted that Beaulieu would sign for just $2.4 million per season with the Buffalo Sabres. Bergevin himself probably couldn’t have predicted he’d have this much cap space (~$8.5 million) to work with into August. Of course, considering reports he wanted Andrei Markov, another left-handed defenseman, to wait until as late as October until a decision was made to re-sign him or not, that might be by design.

Bergevin hardly comes out of this summer smelling like roses in any case unless he manages to do something near-miraculous with that space. Morrow turning into a legitimate power-play quarterback, one that the Canadiens so badly need, would definitely qualify. That unfortunately tells you all need in regard to his potential to replace Beaulieu, a defenseman that started 2016-17 playing beside Shea Weber on the team’s top pairing.

Montreal Canadiens defenseman Shea Weber
Montreal Canadiens defenseman Shea Weber – (Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports)

Sure, Beaulieu was eventually taken off, but people looked at him last summer and said to themselves, “He’s probably Montreal’s best shot at a defenseman to play with Weber.” At this point, people are looking at Morrow and seeing a bust.

He’s still young and can turn into a serviceable player, but not without more of a chance than he’s earned up to this point. Again, 17 games, which is how many Beaulieu played back in 2013-14 before being bumped up to at least 64 in each of the last three seasons, is hardly indicative of a coach who likes what he sees. Time is running out for him to show what he can do.