Over the summer, Rick Bowness told Josh Morrissey of the high expectations he had for him.
“At the end of the season, and this is what I told him, when there’s a discussion of who the top-10 D are for the Norris Trophy voting, I want to see his name in there,” the new head coach told reporters recently.
So far, Morrissey is living up to Bowness’ heady vision. Through 18 games, the 27-year-old has been nothing short of a revelation and is playing the best hockey of his eight-year career.
Morrissey Having Outstanding Season So Far
The alternate captain leads the Jets in points with 18, having notched three goals to go along with 15 assists, and is destined to blow his season-high point total — 37, set last season — out of the water. He is leading the Jets in ice time [er game by more than a minute at 23:39 and his CORSI and Fenwick percentages are near 55 per cent, which means when he’s on the ice, the Jets have control of the puck more often than not.
Morrissey has been a top-four staple on the Jets’ back end for a long time now, but whether he’s ever been their “best” defender has been heavily debated. So it may come as a bit of surprise what Bowness put on the record after Morrissey scored two goals — including the overtime winner — in a 4-3 victory against the Carolina Hurricanes.
“I mentioned to him I remember coming in here with Dallas and coaching against you, and part of our pre-game was focused on Josh Morrissey,” Bowness said, recalling his time as bench boss of the Stars. “Because he was their best defenceman. We talked about that, and I said ‘that’s what I said we need from you…’ You’ve got the green light, I want you a lot more involved in the offence. I want you skating. You’ve got everything.”
Bowness’ system that gives defensemen that “green light’ — the license to jump up in the play with regularity to create offence — has benefitted Morrissey immensely.
“He knows he’s got the green light to join the rush, to lead the rush, to skate the puck out of the zone,” Bowness said after the Jets had a perfect three-game homestand earlier this month. “Some of those decisions, they’re not based on a system. They’re just based on his abilities… Don’t put too much emphasis on the system. Put an emphasis on his ability to skate and read the play and his hockey IQ and his skillset.”
There’s never been much doubt Morrissey has an elite skillset. His puck-moving prowess and ability to transition from defence to offence (and vice-versa) are outstanding. He’s also an incredible skater and one of the most cerebral players in the Jets 2.0 era.
Morrissey Has Overcome a Lot to Excel
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the now-veteran of nearly 450 games, though. His 2020-21 season was poor by his standards, with just 21 points in 56 games and mediocre possession numbers. Unbeknownst to many, his heart was heavy and his focus was not on the ice, but rather on his father Tom Morrissey, who was battling cancer.
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Due to COVID-19 restrictions during that shortened season, visits with Tom were a challenge and when the Jets played in Morrissey’s hometown of Calgary as a member of the temporary all-Canadian North Division, no one, including Tom, was able to attend. Tom died in August, 2021 at age 69.
“All those things made it that much more difficult,” Morrissey said last April. “I’m a guy that loves playing the game and have always had a lot of fun out there. For me, (2020-21) was just one of those things where that fun and excitement was just harder to conjure up, if you will. I just felt like I had a weight on my shoulders and maybe some of the other things you could rely on to give you a boost, well, the fans weren’t there, all those things. So it was a tough year.”
Morrissey rebounded last season after rededicating himself to strength and fitness and deciding that the best way to honour the relationship he had with his father was to enjoy life and the season. He set career highs with 12 goals and 37 points, reclaiming his status as a top-four talent in the process. Sadly, the team around him failed to live up to expectations and finished well out of the Central Division playoff picture.
Last season’s lack of team success has not deterred Morrissey this season, however. On the contrary, his trajectory has only shot upward under Bowness’ stern but thoughtful and trusting eye. In a pivotal season where the long-term trajectory and relevance of the franchise are on the line, Morrissey has more than chipped in during a hotter-than-expected 11-5-1 start.
Morrissey Certainly Belongs in Early Norris Conversation
While Morrissey’s been great, there are 31 other teams and many other d-men are excelling as well. If we’re going to do some too-early prognosticating about who could go home with the Norris Trophy — awarded to the defensive player who demonstrates the greatest all-round ability in the position — he must be compared to others.
Entering play Wednesday, Morrissey is in a four-way tie for sixth amongst defensemen in points with Mikhail Sergachev (Tampa Bay Lightning,) Brandon Montour (Florida Panthers,) and Hampus Lindholm (Boston Bruins.) Leading the way so far is the resurgent Erik Karlsson, who has an eye-popping 29 points in 21 games for a middling San Jose Sharks club.
Last season, the Colorado Avalanche’s Cale Makar took home the honours after leading all NHL defensemen in goals with 28 and finishing second in points with 86. If Morrissey keeps up his current 1.058 point-per-game pace, he’ll have 86.75 at the season’s end.
Individual accolades are nice but much is out of Morrissey’s control. If Karlsson finally stays healthy for a whole season and keeps up his torrid tallying, he’ll have 113 points at the season’s end — that would be the most since 1988-89 when the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Paul Coffey had the same number — and the Swede would rightfully win the award in a cakewalk.
Morrissey’s ultimate fate in the Norris race isn’t clear yet, but what is clear is how valuable he is to the Jets and how valuable he’ll continue to be as the season progresses and the push to return to the playoffs continues. Right now, it seems he’ll be in the top-10 as Bowness desires, and perhaps even higher.