Evaluating the Joe Morrow signing, and what it suggests about the Canadiens’ pro scouting department

An incomplete picture may have led to the Habs putting too much stock in the defenceman’s ability.

“The consistency with Joe [Morrow] … we see the potential. But it was always, the first game was good, the second was okay, and by the third you know [Morrow’s game] got loose a little bit.

“So far the three games he’s played he’s been good. You know and that’s what you want from a young player, you want to see some progress and right now so far he is showing us that he’s learning that.” –  Claude Julien,  NBC Sports

This isn't a quote from this season. Those words are from more than a year ago.

At the time, Julien was still coaching the Boston Bruins, and a few weeks after saying this, he was stapling his defenceman on the bench for a month, and did so again right before his firing.

In choosing to join the Montreal Canadiens as a free agent this season, it's likely that Morrow had a level of trust in Julien. But to choose to once again play for a coach who clearly viewed him as an eighth defenceman, it's probable that not many offers were thrown his way when he was testing the market

On July 1, the Habs were still very much in play with Andrei Markov. They also had a plethora of depth defencemen, a few prospects coming up in Noah Juulsen, Brett Lernout, and Victor Mete, plus Jakub Jerabek, the recent European import.

The Habs were already prepared for the multiple injuries their defence would face during the season. The call-ups would have been reserved for their rookies, giving them a taste of the NHL.

After all, Lernout was coming off of his best season in the AHL and was getting some praise from the organization, and while Mete was a surprise, the physical, complete game of Juulsen could have transitioned pretty quickly to the big leagues. Jerabek was also an all-star in the KHL and looked quite promising.

Instead, Montreal chose to be the team to pick up Morrow, another fringe NHL defender. On December 2, with David Schlemko back in the rotation, Brandon Davidson was placed on waivers — claimed by the Edmonton Oilers the next day — in favour of hanging onto Morrow to hold the final defensive spot on the roster.

At 24 years old, Morrow was too old to be considered a prospect. He was given plenty of chances with multiple teams who decided to not retain his services. The possibility of him getting better at this point was slim.

It's common for first-rounders to be given extra looks after struggling early in their career. They often possess great tools that one believes they can finally put together, becoming the player they were touted to be under your watch.

Morrow is a good skater and has a booming shot that gives him offensive upside at the NHL level, but, like many others, there are a few flaws that ruin the overall portrait: his poor defensive reads, neutral-zone gaps, and the fact that he stumbles with possession under pressure.

Every team has worked with him on those issues since his first training camp in 2011, but to almost no avail. The Pittsburgh Penguins reputedly had to build his defensive game from scratch after they drafted him, getting rid of all his bad habits. Morrow also spent quite a bit of time in different AHL organizations for the same reasons.

To this day, it still looks like a well-rounded game is out of reach for the defenceman. He has stretches of great play, but they are inevitable followed by a heavy drop in performance where he can't find his marks on the ice.

So, it begs the question: why did Montreal show interest in a defenceman with this kind of track record?

My theory is that they overvalued a small sample size of games.

The 2017 playoffs were likely when Morrow played the best hockey of his career. The Bruins faced the Ottawa Senators, and even though they lost in six games, Morrow's qualities really shone on the back end.

Due to multiple injuries, he was called upon after not playing since the end of January (when Julien last benched him). He jumped right in, performing at a new level by playing top-four minutes with Kevan Miller, whom he was comfortable with from their time in the AHL.

Morrow cut down on his number of giveaways, was playing more solidly on defence, and most of all was an asset in transition. It definitely looked like a step forward for him.

“It’s a confidence thing,” Morrow said. “If you believe in yourself, and you believe you can play at this pace and this competitive level, then that’s just how it’s going to be.” – Providence Journal

But did he become a different player? Or was the context more favourable for him to have success?

I think Morrow deserves full credit for playing well after not getting NHL ice time in months. Not many players in his position could have done it.

However, arguably the main issue in his game — making quick decisions under pressure — was not exposed as much in the series due to Senators’ often passive forecheck. Morrow had more time to look for options and make his decisions on the breakout.

He was set up to carry the puck through the neutral zone on multiple occasions in that series, helping the Bruins counter the trap of the Sens with numbers. He also exploited line changes to gain the offensive zone for his team.

He showcased what he could do when he is given the space by the other team. And, for an organization that was actively looking to furnish their back end, it must have been an enticing display.

It's a common mistake in scouting to ignore an accumulation of reports on a player through the years due to an impressive stretch of games on a bigger stage. It happens every year when certain performances at the World Juniors are overvalued. A few plays fill the minds of the observers, and it changes the perspective on the potential of certain individuals.

Pro scouting usually deals with finished products, in the sense that they look at players who have already made their mark in the NHL. But in the case of Morrow, eyes were still on him to see if he could achieve his breakthrough.

The fact that he has the first-rounder aura and played above his expected level in the playoffs might have signaled to Montreal that this breakthrough had finally come, and that they would be the team to pick up the finished product.

That's not what happened.

Maybe it was worth the risk, as Montreal signed him for cheap for just one year. But they’ve also played him way too much this season to consider the signing only a prove-it contract.

Even looking at the play of the defenceman in the Ottawa series, there were still some of the usual red flags. The NHL has evolved to favour puck-movers, but the occasions to rush it up effectively from the back end — Morrow's main quality — are rare against most teams, even if you are a truly exceptional and elusive skater, which he can’t claim to be.

The other way to advance the play, and arguably the most effective one, is with crisp and smart passes. Being able to execute a strong breakout is a must on any defence, but Morrow doesn't have the poise or passing ability to be an asset on a team looking to improve its transition game.

It feels like a common trend in Montreal's pro scouting to fall in love with specific aspects of a player and minimize their flaws; to look at someone's golden days and project them shining the same way every game in bleu, blanc, et rouge.

There's also an apparent incomplete understanding of the qualities necessary to be an effective player in the current NHL.

It is always a bit unfair to gauge acquisitions like this in hindsight, as scouting in any capacity is far from an exact science, but the fact there are even more glaring examples of those problems with roster construction that could fill several other articles is suggesting that maybe a hard look at at how the organization evaluates talent is necessary.

In the optic of a reset, the most desirable pieces of the team will need to be moved for great returns, and the recent track record doesn't inspire confidence that the poper needs will be addressed.

Let's hope that this season is an eye-opener for everyone involved in player personnel decisions within the organization.

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