The momentum generated by Phoenix defenseman Derek Morris stopped in an instant.
Early in the first period Tuesday night against Vancouver at home, Morris aggravated a previous injury, left the ice and did not return. He played only 3:05 in an eventual 3-2 shootout win over the Canucks. The energy and production generated in the first month of perhaps Morris’ most productive season screeched to a halt.
After Antoine Vermette‘s goal in the shootout decided the outcome against the Canucks, Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said Morris’ injury was not serious and he would not be sidelined for any significant period of time.
On Tuesday night, Morris left in the Coyotes’ 16th game of the season and until that point, the 35-year-old native of Edmonton, Alberta put together conceivably the best season of his 16-year NHL career.
Drafted in the first round by Calgary near the end of the first Bill Clinton administration in 1996, Morris lasted through five teams, over 1,000 games and countless nicks and bruises.
Now in his mid-30s, and considered ancient by NHL standards, Morris seriously doubted his value. As a professional hockey player for his entire adult life, Morris could not fall back on any career and frankly said, “I have no idea what I would do.”
After his contract expired at the end of last season, Morris indicated he was ready for change and resigned himself that his NHL career was over.
In discussing possible retirement with his family, Morris reported his sons made the decision for him. His three boys, Traiten, Presley and Asher, ages 6 through 13, convinced him there was more in the tank.
“They made me look deep inside and then I convinced myself I had to play harder,” Morris said. “I had to be accountable for each game and wanted to be accountable. So, I changed my training methods and reported to camp totally rejuvenated.”
Morris promptly signed a one-year deal with Phoenix. According to capgeek.com, the contract is worth $2,750,000, and Morris reports he is happy and productive.
Coming into Tuesday’s game with Vancouver, Morris was sixth in the league in scoring among defensemen. His four goals were tied for the league lead with Erik Karlsson of Ottawa and Alex Pietrangelo of St. Louis among defensemen.
In 14 games to date this season, Morris picked up 10 points, and the Coyotes have Keith Yandle, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Morris among the top six scoring defensemen in the league.
Over his NHL career, Morris’ best season was in 2002-03 with Colorado. Here, he scored 11 goals, his career high, and added 37 assists for 48 points. That was the only time he reached 40 or more points in one season.
Over the past five seasons, he scored a combined 11 goals and could be on track to surpass that total in the current season alone.
“(Morris) shoots the puck to score,” said Tippett. “He’s always been a solid defensive-defenseman. Now, he steps into the play and delivers a hard, accurate shot. He deserves a great deal of credit for his commitment, work ethic and leadership.”
One of the reasons for Morris’ surge is the improved defensive play of Yandle, his blue-line partner. Known as an offensive-defenseman, Yandle is playing more conservatively, and that’s given Morris additional openings than in the past. As well, a greater dynamic is at work here.
“There’s the trust factor,” said Yandle, who partners with Morris on commutes to and from the rink and engages in continuous dialog. “That’s a big deal, the trust factor. Plus, he’s having fun and working hard.”
Perhaps goalie Mike Smith paid Morris the ultimate complement.
“He’s a warrior,” Smith said. “He battles every night and provides great leadership. He’s playing well in critical situations. He usually gets the hard minutes when the game is on the line and has been amazing killing penalties.”
Morris continues to be part of an improving defensive corps. General manager Don Maloney and Tippett have blended youth and experience, and the result is a maturing and forceful unit on the blue line.
“We are fortunate to have that quality on defense,” said captain Shane Doan. “You hear about the front line guys, like Yandle, Morris, Ekman-Larsson. But guys like (Zbynek) Michalek, (Rostislav) Klesla, (David) Schlemko and (Michael) Stone have stepped forward. A guy like David Rundblad, who could easily be a front-line defenseman with another team, is fighting here for minutes.”
With a renewed spirit and zeal restored, Morris has reached a significant plateau. As one not to toss around accolades, Tippett said simply, “(Morris) is a solid veteran for us.”
Mark Brown is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.
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