It became pretty obvious at the beginning of training camp that Josh Morrissey was going to begin his first professional season with the Manitoba Moose in the American Hockey League. The Winnipeg Jets’ first round (13th overall) selection in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft was buried on the depth chart behind nine returning defensemen from last season’s team.
“Everyone’s goal is to play in the NHL,” said Morrissey last week. “You go into training camp, regardless if you’re a just drafted 18-year-old like I was a few years ago or coming into your first year of pro, you want to make that team. So, it was disappointing.”
Morrissey, 20, has had success at pretty much every level, and this is one of the few times in his hockey career he has faced adversity. He was a dominant force on both sides of the puck in the Western Hockey League, amassing 196 points (66 goals, 130 assists) and 276 penalty minutes in 249 career games. Through 21 games with the Moose, Morrissey has only two assists and a minus-6 rating.
However, as the season has stretched into December, Morrissey has noticed improvements in his game.
“I’ve been making a lot of strides in a lot of areas the coaching staff wants me to,” Morrissey said. “My pace every game has been up a lot more. That was a huge thing for me — having my pace up. Offensively, being an offensive-defenseman, the points haven’t necessarily come easily so far for me, but I feel I’ve been generating a lot of good chances and getting into prime scoring areas. I just haven’t been given a lot of bounces. Overall, I’m trying to work on my game every day, and I think I’ve really improved.”
Though Morrissey cannot legally drink yet, there is a sense of maturity in him. A prospect like him who has had success at nearly every level often becomes frustrated with not making the NHL club right away. Morrissey, however, understands the importance of marinating in the minors to hone his skills.
For a defenseman, especially, it takes time to adjust from juniors or college to the NHL. There are rare cases like the Los Angeles Kings’ Drew Doughty, the Nashville Predators’ Seth Jones and Winnipeg’s Jacob Trouba who made the adjustment quite well. But more often than not, elite defensemen take at least one full season in the AHL before being ready for the NHL.
“Everyone would love to play in the NHL the day they’re drafted because that’s the way players are — they want to play in the NHL and nothing else,” said Morrissey. “I know it’s a process. I look at a lot of the great players on defense in the NHL today that developed and spent time in the American League. A guy I watch a lot is Duncan Keith, and he spent two full season in the AHL to develop before he made his break into the NHL. Everyone’s different, every scenario is different. It’s hard to base yourself to anyone because of everyone’s unique situation, but I’m taking it in a positive way.”
Unlike the Edmonton Oilers, the Jets are not rushing their prized prospects to play in the NHL right away. The pressure of playing in a Canadian market on the biggest stage in hockey can be too much for younger players.
Though there is not a lot of pressure in performing t in the AHL, the Moose have a unique situation. They share their home arena with the Jets and are only one of two clubs that do that with their NHL affiliate. With management and coaches observing regularly, there is increased pressure.
For Morrissey, however, the only pressure he feels is the pressure he has on himself.
“I demand a lot out of my game,” he said. “I’m a self-critic of my game, and I’m always trying to get better. Obviously, there is pressure along with being a first-round pick and being in a Canadian market, but I’m excited. Being in Winnipeg at the same time [as the Jets] and playing out of the MTS Centre, I just feel I’m getting a lot better.”
Morrissey is among the many elite prospects the Jets have developing in either the minor leagues or juniors. Other notable prospects include forwards Nic Petan and Chase De Leo and goaltenders Connor Hellebuyck and Eric Comrie. This incoming crop of Jets will have their fair share of pressure to perform in the coming years.
“Being one of those guys, you want to take the essential steps [with the Moose] in the AHL and get to that level where you can play in the NHL on an everyday basis,” Morrissey said. “We have a lot of young guys on our team making a lot of strides. At the end of the day, it’s an exciting time to be on an AHL team with that many young players. We’re all just trying to get better together.”
If Morrissey and the other Jets prospects pan out like many predict, Winnipeg is going to be celebrating a Stanley Cup victory or two soon enough.