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Buoyed by a love of the best game you can name
28 Jul

Pittsburgh Penguins: Their Loss of Brenden Morrow Will be Someone Else's Great Gain

Brenden Morrow is one of the gems still left in 2013s Free Agent class.

Brenden Morrow is one of those guys. You know, not flashy like Vincent Lecavalier, David Clarkson or Ryan Clowe, not part of a high profile team like Valtteri Filppula or Nathan Horton, not a sentimental fan favourite like Jarome "Iggy" Iginla or even like the declining but legendary Jaromir Jagr, not playing in a position of constant interest like Mike Smith or Ilya Brysgalov or seemingly perpetually in the sports news like Tyler Bozak or Freeway Face-Off double agent, Dustin Penner. Or any number of other fellow NHL players who hit the free agency market this year.

Which should not even remotely explain why he has not signed with a team. The guy is a gem. One of those rare ones. Content, and maybe happiest, to leave the flash to the other guys, while he hunkers down and does the work that pays less in fame and fortune but without which no team can hope to be a contender. And I do not mean to say he is a no-talent, third rate, role player. He's a role player all right, but not in the pejorative sense that the term has come to imply: a player interchangeable with any other of the same basic skill set who plays the same position. He's a difference maker. The thing is, he does it so well and with such consistency that it's easy to overlook the impact it actually has on the team's performance. He's the quiet gear you don't really notice until it's gone.

When the Pens first signed Morrow I was skeptical, as were most of my fellow Pens fans. The Pens were already the oldest team in the league and adding another "old guy" seemed a dubious choice. I was, like others, concerned over the injuries that had kept him out of the Dallas line up for large parts of 2011 and wondering why a team would trade their Captain. I especially wondered why the Pens, those run and gun cowboys, would be adding a player who, on the surface, added nothing to the Pens game style. Late season, trade deadline-ish changes have always been, in my mind, to add necessary, missing pieces.

But I had always liked Morrow, had seen him play several times wearing the Canada jersey and had been very impressed with him at the 2010 Olympics, especially when he was matched up with Getzlaf and Perry. I was not the only one. Pierre Lebrun posted an article on ESPN which contains a telling quote from head coach Mike Babcock:

"The Dallas Stars captain began the tourney as almost a spare part on Team Canada. But as the games have gotten bigger, he has gradually seen his role increase, throwing his weight around with great effectiveness against Russia in the quarterfinals and Slovakia on Friday night on a line with Anaheim Ducks stars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.

It just so happens Getzlaf and Perry, by the way, have played their best hockey with Morrow, who scored Canada's second goal Friday night in the 3-2 semifinal win over Slovakia.

"He's one of those guys that's got real good hockey sense, but he's satisfied to be a grinder on this team," Team Canada coach Mike Babcock said. "I thought he played real strong tonight. ... He's added energy. And Getzy and Perry have been way better since he got there. He got the energy level up for them. He's an important player

"He did a great job tonight on the power play. He scored one goal, but then he was right in front for that other goal in front. He's been great. Everybody has had a way to make a contribution, but I think he's different than a lot of the skill guys we brought, and that's why we brought him, because of the grit."

After the first few acclimatizing games where he was not much of a factor, it became apparent why Ray Shero manages a hockey team and I only write about them. Turns out, Morrow was a necessary, missing piece. And frankly, I wish he was staying with the Pens. He will be missed, and I don't mean that in a fan-ish sort of way, I mean that in a team performance and chemistry kind of way. But I can do the math. At a $3.0-$3.5 million cap hit, which is where I think he will end up (he's at $4.1 presently) the Pens simply can't afford him and will need to mix and match existing players, slot in the few new FA additions and bring up some of their homegrown talent. But that's a whole other rant.

What He Brought With Him

Morrow's tenure in Pittsburgh is a little like his role at those same Olympics. Overlooked by the bigger events on which the fans and media fixated. Morrow's career, which will be evaluated like all forwards, with goals and assists, is not a footnote in the great library of hockey history, but it will reside in the middle shelves, too high for scorn, too low for adulation. Which is a damn shame, because Brenden Morrow deserves better.

In Pittsburgh, instead of being appreciated for what he did bring, he was unappreciated for what he didn't bring. You have to forgive the fans, it's easy to get spoiled by such elite offensive depth, easy to begin to measure everyone against their output, easy to see a vast difference in production as a vast difference in value. 

But someone has to to the grit and grunt work that sets up those opportunities. Someone has to play against the other team's scoring line. Someone has to act as a defensive forward on the penalty kill. Because ice hockey is team sport and no goal has ever been scored or stopped that was not a team effort, or at the very least, an effort by the 6 players on the ice at the time. Don't let the highlight reels and the fan club memberships fool you. Even breakaways and "unassisted" goals are assisted. I bloody hate that phrase and the stat that doesn't go with it.

Morrow is that player, hidden in behind the fifty goal scorers, who makes the fifty goals possible. If you knock out the bricks in the foundation, the beautiful building on top falls down. No one mourns the bricks, of course, they're just bricks, right? All that gets talked about is the architectural wonder that sat on top of them.

Because it is the easiest one to make an example of and the lead in justifies it, there was a textbook defensive failure by the American team while the golden goal was scored. It was a subtle failure, a VERY subtle failure. In fact, to be fair, it might not even be considered a failure, but a failed risk inherent to the style being played, a natural by-product of the line of players on the ice at the time. 

It is a failure the Pittsburgh Penguins make a lot and one which the Boston Bruins virtually never make. A goal scoring forward was not covering the play, he left an empty spot between the puck and the net while he stood in another empty spot in which no Canadian player was present and which seemed unlikely to come into play before he could get back to it. He was waiting for the transition opportunity, of course. Waiting for the opportunity to carry the puck back up the ice and switch the pressure. That's what scoring forwards do, they take the pressure off the defense by creating offense.

[begin tangential optional bit I should edit out but won't]

So many forwards make the same "mistake", especially the guys in the annual scoring race. Especially those guys. We've all seen it. They don't want to get too close to their own net, it's the farthest place from the other net. If they get into the fray, they probably won't be skating out of it with the puck. It's their job to wait for the breakout play, for an opportunity for puck possession and to find a swatch of ice to get a step off from. Almost every player whose job is to get the big goals would have been waiting in the same place. That's where the playbook tells him to wait. It might even be where the coach told him to wait, if not in so many words.

Almost every team who relies on offense instead of defense would have made it. It's the defining difference between an offense-first and a defense-first team. To everyone's credit, it is also the usual way teams manage a sudden death overtime scenario.

But in that precise moment, a clear and present danger, so to speak, existed. Jarome Iginla and Sidney Crosby were owning the play, despite the combined efforts of three other defensive players. It was Crosby's second shot on goal in the same offensive play that won the game. They were not cycling the puck back to the blue line, they were not playing a cagey game of passes, they were fully engaged in the heat of the momentum and there was no direction they were going that was not toward the net. The forward should have been the third defenseman, in that instance. 

Torts would have advised him, and Torts would have been right, to sacrifice his body and strip the opportunity from the offenders. Sure, there was a chance the puck would break and he would have been all alone over there, ready to skate out and drive the play back to the other end. That's what he's been trained to do. But in that moment what we should have seen was him sliding across the ice on his belly, as necessary. Joining the defense. A very tired defense that was clearly losing the battle.

The worst case was that he did that and Crosby, seeing the opportunity lost, cycled the puck back to the blue line and the guy on the other side would have a more or less open shot from the point. And those are the gambles, of course, but your goal tender is going to have a tougher time stopping Sidney Crosby from close up or, as the case was, a sharp, unexpected angle.

What we saw instead was a goal for the ages. In all fairness, the forward had made a quick step and was on his way to do something like that, but it was too late. I do not make this analysis, which is certainly arguable and fairly sketchy, to castigate the player, because it was not really his failure, if it was one at all, it was the result of a hockey philosophy. I do it to make a point.

[end tangential optional bit]

And here's the very ironic point: that would have been Brenden Morrow's finest moment, had he been in that skater's skates. He is one of the finest forechecking, defense-zone positional forwards in the game. He has some strange instinct that tells him where to be. He screens as well as anyone in the NHL and is the sort of in front of the net presence that is part bully, part pest, part threat and part screen. 

He likes to score goals and he can score goals, but his instincts are as defensive as they are offensive and he doesn't mind going to the boards or into the corners even though that is the death-call to goal scorers, for that shift anyway. He would have slid across the ice or been right in between Crosby and Miller. Hell, I've seen him play some shifts where I think he might have thrown his stick into the shot line. He's like Toews in that way, but grittier, more physical, less movable.

You know why Jonaton Toews doesn't quite rack up the Crosby-like numbers? Not that he's not as skilled, because he is, it's because he's extraordinarily defensive minded. He would have been sliding across the ice, in Crosby's face, slipping into a defensive role because, in the moment, that was more important than waiting for an offensive opportunity. Which is why he's so damn valuable. And Toews and Morrow are cut from the same cloth. They can evaluate the ice very quickly and can decide just as quickly whether the greatest need of the moment is offensive or defensive. That's an "in the bones" thing. You can't teach it to anyone.

There's a vast difference between a defensively suspect forward like Malkin, a defensively responsible forward such as Crosby and a defensively minded one such as Toews or Morrow. And it's in those moments that you see both the difference and the difference it makes. While Malkin may well rack up more career goals than Crosby and Crosby more than Toews, the players like Morrow contribute something equally important to the game.

You know what would have happened, of course, had that American forward gone all Toews or Morrow in that moment. We would not even remember that moment. We would not be talking about it. We would have placed it where all the other "almost" moments go. Naturally. We can't put a gold star on every single thing. 

THAT'S how Brenden Morrow gets lost in the shuffle. The fan shuffle and the media shuffle.

Morrow racked up 14 points in 15 games with Pittsburgh. Over a regular season that's 70+ points by straight arithmetic. Given Morrow's point history, that would have likely translated to at least a 40 or 50 point season. That is not only respectable, when you consider the defensive edge he brings, that's positively stellar.

He brings a palpable energy to the ice when he's on it. Very similar to Brad Marchand. He never stops and never quits, even when it's apparent that he's not going to catch whomever he is chasing. He's not the fastest skater in the world, but he never stops skating. It is unbelievable how many times in a game or a season that that very quality is the little pivot upon which a game turns. It gets other players skating, it creates energy and momentum, it revs up the team almost the same way a goal does. Theo Fleury had the exact same quality about him. Even when he was slumping in the scoring department, the guy never quit. Mike Babcock would call Morrow a "character player" and Mike Babcock would be right.

Defensive forwards are the absolute fulcrum of the successful hockey team. Yep, you need the highlight reel guys who thunder up the ice like race horses, split the defense, deke the goalie and pot one in the top corner, sending the water bottle flying, bringing the fans to their feet and the opposition to its knees. But in between those goals, you absolutely need the Brenden Morrows. They'll score for you, but most importantly, they will help make sure the other guys don't score on you. They'll tire them out, wear them down, forecheck them until they are sweaty, tired, frustrated and angry. Bad penalties, opportunistic goals and more opportunities for the race horses are the result.

There is an idea, spreading through the NHL like a virus, that an elite player is not found on the third or fourth line. That those lines are filled with interchangeable role players who are simply there to keep the game from getting ugly in between the the top two lines' shifts. Because they are adored less and are less likely to become fan favourites (because they don't score as much), they are considered less important. If you're not "top six" then you're "bottom six" and there's a nasty allusion in the terminology. 

It's a dangerous virus, that one. 

It's a four line, five skater, one goalie game. Do the math. It's a 23 player bench. Four lines of 5 skaters, 2 goalies and 1 spare. Those other players aren't there just so the race horses can have a rest. No, they're there so the other team's race horses don't get a rest. So every player on the bench is of equal importance. Every player may not have equal leader board impact, but in strict terms, every player is equally important. Take out the Penguins third line some day, run a three line team and get back to me if you disagree. I'd be happy to have that debate.

I hope Brenden Morrow's agent knows how to have it.

My suggestion is that he go have it with the Detroit Redwings who could use even more of the veteran, defensive minded presence that Daniel Alfredson brings. My other suggestion is that he not be so concerned with "top six" or "bottom six" status because it shouldn't matter in terms of self-evaluation and a sense of contribution. It will definitely matter in terms of salary expectations, I realize, but at 34 years of age, he's reaching the end of his ability to command a big salary, wherever he plays.

What He Takes Away

Morrow is a sacrificial lamb in two contexts. The obvious one is the salary cap. There is no form of creative accounting or unevenly loaded contracts that can stretch a dollar bill into a hundred note. But he's the other kind, too. The kind the fans make. Pittsburgh's abymsal showing in the Eastern Conference Final in 2013 required some heads to roll. Iggy's was bound to go first as he carried the biggest cap hit and was the most disappointing in an expectation versus reality way. 

Morrow, in my mind, is the more important loss. In fact, I have said it a hundred times in a hundred different ways but I think Matt Cooke, Brenden Morrow and Tomas Vokoun are the only Penguins who played well in that series. And Morrow, playing through a knee injury, was playing hurt. He wasn't part of the problem, he was almost part of the solution. It's the almost part, of course, that kicks the thing down the dark well.

Frankly, I think the Pens let Morrow down, not the other way around. As a "rental" player, brought in to assist them in their run for the Cup, he has to carry some of the weight of that failure and it makes it easier for everyone if he has to carry a bigger share than he actually deserves. He became part of the post-season "well, that's what the Pens get for bringing in all those old, high priced rentals" discussion. You heard everything from "he's so slow" to "didn't do us any good at all". Which is all nonsense, of course, but it helps people sleep better at night knowing the weak spots have been cut out. That next year will be better.

The thing is, with Morrow's loss, a weak spot was not cut out, rather one was created. Next year might well be better, but it will not be because Brenden Morrow is not on the team, it will be despite it.

He takes away an element that is astoundingly hard to replace. It can't be measured and really can't be defined in a universally acceptable way. Some call it character, others call it grit. Some call it heart and others call it grind. It's a sort of fearless approach to the game which isn't particularly susceptible to in-game loss of energy or momentum, it virtually never goes flat even when everything and everyone else does. He's the guy saying, "Come on, guys, don't quit now!" without saying it.  A kind of on-ice cheerleader that defines a leader. A presence. 

The Pens are not without their own mettle. There's not a lot of quit in the line-up below. No divas. No slackers. But now there's no true grit, either. No real pests and relentless forecheckers. Until the new guys get slotted in and we see their character, it's a team that's missing an important component, I believe.


Sure, the Pens will make adjustments, they already have, and they'll fill in the roster and line spots that need filling. They did what needed doing and someone had to go. Funny, isn't it, how Brenden Morrow is such a  recurring name in those someone has to ... statements. That's the curse of being the essential gear that lives in the middle of the machine.

There's no way to measure regrets, of course, but I bet this fan will be watching some games next year and saying to herself, "Man, I wish we still had Morrow."



Previously on Sidelines:
Sochi Olympics: Stretching Loyalties, Dan Bylsma Versus Sidney Crosby
Next on Sidelines:
Sochi Olympic Hockey: The Russians Are Favoured and Everyone Else will have to Go Big or Go Home