After not receiving a qualifying offer from the Boston Bruins on June 27, at 24 years of age Joe Morrow became one of the youngest players to hit free agency this summer. Marc Bergevin was quick to swoop in and sign the youthful defenceman to a one-year, one-way contract worth $650,000 on July 1.
Known as a mobile and aggressive two-way defenceman, Morrow once projected as an all-situations NHL blue-liner, but has yet to put it all together and earn a full-time NHL roster spot.
The 6’0”, 200-pound defenceman was the 23rd-overall pick by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2011. In 2012-13 Morrow played his first pro season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the Penguins organization before being traded to Dallas for forward Brendan Morrow. His time in Dallas was short-lived, as the defender was soon flipped as part of the package that sent budding superstar Tyler Seguin to the Stars.
It was in Boston during the 2014-15 campaign that the left-handed Morrow received his first opportunity in the NHL, under current Canadiens coach Claude Julien.
However, despite Julien taking a liking to Morrow’s confidence, it was not enough to overlook his lack of consistency. In 2014 Julien stated Morrow was best served by more playing in the AHL, giving him a chance to “find his game again.”
His fortune didn’t change over the next three seasons as Morrow averaged just fewer than 22 NHL games per year (65 total) between the 2014-15 and 2016-17 seasons. With young defencemen like Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo making their way up the Bruins’ depth chart, Morrow eventually fell out of favour with current Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy and the organization as a whole.
Morrow collected the largest range in votes of any eligible player from the panellists. The enigmatic defenceman received six top-15 spots with eight votes outside of the top 25, including no ranking on four ballots.
The wide-ranging opinion could be due to the values of different panellists. Some may have ranked Morrow higher because he has at least found time in the NHL whereas other eligible prospects have not. Some may have ranked him lower because he has not yet shown the ability to sustain NHL playing time despite being given a chance.
Morrow is a poised and mobile defenceman who has the ability to skate the puck out of his defensive zone. He has a heavy shot and has shown flashes of his distribution skills and good hockey sense.
His strongest asset may be his skating, having a fluid stride with good balance, and he is able to keep his head up while handling the puck.
During his final year in junior, Morrow helped anchor the Portland Winterhawks’ top-ranked power play to an impressive 29.4% conversion rate, allowing him to finish with an impressive 64 points in 62 games.
Although he has only played 35 minutes of power-play time in his 65 NHL games, he has shown enough ability to garner more time on the man advantage. Morrow gathered two primary assists and was fourth on his team in on-ice goals for per 60 minutes (6.74), which would have ranked first on the Habs over that three-year span. Morrow also controlled 90% of the five-on-four shot attempts, which tied him with power-play specialists Torey Krug and John-Michael Liles.
Morrow has always possessed the tools needed to be a full-time NHL defenceman, and with a change of scenery and a new situation he may be able to break through.
When asked shortly after being signed by the Habs what he needs to do to make that full-time jump to the NHL, Morrow pointed to his issues with consistency.
Jake Reiser from EOTP sister site Stanley Cup of Chowder says that Morrow’s inconsistency is mostly due his decision-making. Sometimes he looks like he belongs in the NHL and then he will have stretches where it looks like he loses his hockey IQ.
“For what it’s worth, I think it was a lack of chances,” Reiser added.
Morrow offers glimpses of his promising skill set, but may stumble under the pressures of being a former first-round pick. He tends to try too much with the little ice time he gets instead of playing a safer style and earning more ice time; a similar story to former Canadiens defenceman Nathan Beaulieu.
Morrow finished with a seemingly respectable 49.4% Corsi-for percentage in his three years in Boston. Because of the Bruins’ great possession game, Morrow was actually one of just three players — joined by forwards Tim Schaller and Landon Ferraro — who played over 50 games and finished with a negative shot-attempt differential.
Morrow was also dead last in five-on-five goals-for percentage among defenceman as well, at 46.2% despite starting a lot more of his shifts in the offensive zone (35.8%) than the defensive zone (28.6%).
Beaulieu was a relatively accomplished NHL player, yet his final act with the Canadiens was to be scratched from the final playoff game in 2017 by Julien. Morrow hasn’t been able to achieve the level of success that Beaulieu, chosen six spots earlier in the 2011 draft, has experienced in his NHL career. He has also not produced well in a Julien system in Boston that favoured his strengths: possession and skating.
Despite Morrow never cracking Julien’s roster full time, the defenceman has a good relationship with his former-now-current bench boss. “It will help being comfortable with the head coach here.”
With the uncertainty on the Canadiens’ left side going into the 2017-18 season, Morrow will surely get his chance to don the Habs sweater at some point. Julien should give him an opportunity to show what he can do with the big club.
Like in Boston, however, there may be better and safer options with the likes of Brandon Davidson, David Schlemko and Jakub Jerabek to fill out the defensive alignment.
Expect Morrow to start, and likely end, his season with the AHL’s Laval Rocket where he will be a solid contributor and good mentor for 2015 first-round pick Noah Juulsen, and be one of the top options for a call-up when injuries occur.