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Mo Makes for Better Blueline

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
In the midst of a disappointing 2003-04 season and with a lengthy lockout looming on the horizon, the Washington Capitals were faced with a choice. Should they keep a highly paid group of veteran underachievers together, or would they be better off moving their vets to other NHL clubs in exchange for picks and prospects? By midseason, the decision was clear. The playoffs were out of reach, and the smart play was to overhaul the roster.

Caps general manager George McPhee started dialing, and he began inquiring about young defensemen around the circuit. In a flurry of trades during a span of about six weeks, McPhee and the Caps made several deals that produced positive results. Despite his best efforts however, McPhee was only able to bring one young defenseman into the organization with those swaps. Fortunately for the Capitals, defenseman Shaone Morrisonn has been everything the Caps hoped he’d be, and then some.

On Mar. 3, 2004, the Caps sent longtime defenseman Sergei Gonchar to the Boston Bruins in exchange for Morrisonn and two draft choices, Boston’s first and second picks in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. When he arrived in Washington, Morrisonn brought with him exactly one-half season’s worth (41 games) of NHL experience.

That half-season offered a glimmer of what was to come. In those 41 games with the Bruins, Morrisonn had totaled a goal and eight points, but he had also rolled up an impressive plus-10 while playing about 18 minutes a night. He joined the Caps and played in three games, but was then reassigned to the AHL where the Caps wanted him to join the rest of the organization’s budding young nucleus of talent.

After skating with the AHL’s Portland Pirates during the lockout in 2004-05, Morrisonn cracked the Caps lineup last season. It didn’t take him long to become Washington’s steadiest and most reliable backliners.

“I think when we watched him play two years ago, “ says Caps coach Glen Hanlon, “we projected that he was going to play in the NHL. We didn’t project it to be that quickly as far as playing that many minutes and being that consistent. I think the opportunity of where we were and trying to develop players certainly helped. I don’t think it would have happened that quick if he was playing for Carolina or something, where he wouldn’t have played 20-some minutes. But in saying that, a lot of guys were given the opportunity. It’s up to them to be able to handle it.”

Handle it he did. Morrisonn finished the 2005-06 season with modest totals of one goal and 14 points, but his plus-7 defensive rating was remarkable for a team that was outscored by 70 goals, as the Capitals were.

“It’s all about confidence and they showed that they trusted us in giving us those minutes,” said Morrisonn, speaking about himself and his fellow young Caps shortly after the conclusion of the 2005-06 season. “And I think we showed that we can handle those minutes and maybe even more. I think it shows the general manager and the coaches to know that they can rely on us for next year. I think come next year we’ll be ready out of the gates.”

 Morrisonn’s defensive rating was the best among all Washington defensemen. Although he started the season in the lower reaches of the Caps’ defensive depth chart, Morrisonn steadily added more ice time and responsibility as the season wore on. By season’s end, he had an average of 20:44 in nightly ice time.

“Coming into camp I wanted to make the team and establish myself as a top four defenseman.,” he said at the conclusion of the season in April. “I think I worked my way into playing key minutes at times and improved on little things and being consistent from game to game. I think it was a successful season and one that I can carry into next season and try to have a bigger role, be a leader on the defensive corps and hopefully make the playoffs next season.”

The offseason addition of free agent blueliner Brian Pothier from Ottawa seemingly eases the workload on the Washington defense in 2006-07. The minutes absorbed by Morrisonn and his cohorts last season could be spread amongst the returning defensemen plus Pothier, rookie Mike Green and converted forward Ben Clymer.

Not so fast, though. Hanlon has something else in mind.

“I would like to really establish a go-to guy back there who has the mindset of a [Chris] Pronger and wants to play 30 minutes [a night],” states Hanlon, before further qualifying his declaration. “First of all, you have to have some years of experience, because of the amount of energy that is burns going into getting ready for a game. With a first- or second-year player, there is way more going on. But once they have some experience, we’d like to find a guy who can play top defense minutes.”

Hanlon is seeking is someone with the mindset and confidence of a 30-minute man, and the experience needed to pace himself to play that many minutes, if needed. Given that Morrisonn does not see much time on the power play unit, it is unlikely he would log Prongeresque ice time totals. That doesn’t mean he would not embrace such a role at some point in his career.

alt  “Eventually, I want to be a No. 1 defenseman,” says Morrisonn. “Maybe not right away, but that’s what my goal is, to become a guy who can play 30 minutes. I think there are a lot of guys on this team who are capable of doing that, which is good. I think you have to be able to pace yourself a little better, to ease into that 30 minutes. I’ve learned how to be patient out there and be consistent every shift. It’s a long game, and you don’t know how many minutes you are going to play. You don’t know how many penalties there are going to be, you don’t know how many power plays there are going to be. You have to be mentally focused at all times.”

The mental aspects of playing defense can be difficult. Mistakes happen, and they happen in front of thousands of onlookers, coaches and media. The backlash can be harsh. Morrisonn has learned to roll with the good and the bad.

“You can’t really think about a bad shift,” he says. “When you’re younger, I think you dwell on that. Now that you’re older, you realize that you’re going to have a bad game, you’re going to have a bad shift, and you’re going to make a bad play. You’ve got to learn from that. You have to go out the next shift and just be confident. It’s all about confidence and playing with the confidence needed to get the job done. The top guys make mistakes, and you are going to make mistakes. That’s just the way it is; it’s a game of mistakes. You want to try to limit those mistakes, learn from them, and try not to make the same mistakes.”

As stoic as Morrisonn is mentally, Hanlon believes his physical attributes are ideal for the post-lockout NHL.

“With the new rules, there is so much emphasis on skating,” says Hanlon. “That’s his strength, the ability to turn and skate and pivot. He is perfect for the NHL game.”

Although Morrisonn is not a physically imposing behemoth, he is big enough and has good enough reach to handle some of the league’s top talent. Last December, Morrisonn and his mates helped throttle the New York Rangers’ Jaromir Jagr, the league’s top scorer at the time. After a satisfying 5-1 win over the Rangers, Hanlon cited Morrisonn, who had been matched up against Jagr all night.

“We like Morrisonn’s stick work to play against Jags because you can’t outmuscle him,” said the Caps’ coach.

As his confidence grew, Morrisonn’s performance improved. During one midseason stretch, he went 16 straight games with a plus or even rating. He played 20 or more minutes in 30 of Washington’s last 40 games. And in the Capitals’ last 15 games of the season, Morrisonn registered an excellent plus-11.

He hopes to pick up right where he left off last season, and hopes the offseason improvements combined with the continued growth and development of Washington’s young players will help propel the Caps into playoff contention.

“I think it’s good to have that depth on the defensive corps and have the ability to spread the minutes and do it as a committee,” says Morrisonn. “Injuries are going to happen during the year, and you want to have guys who can play at least 20 minutes. If a guy goes down, maybe another guy can pick up a few extra minutes here and there and spread it out amongst the guys. I think that’s going to be good for us, because we don’t really have a No. 1 guy who is going to be playing 35-40 minutes a game. I think it will be a little easier for us and we’ll be able to go harder on the PP and the PK.

While the Caps – and many other NHL teams – don’t have that true No. 1 horse on the backline, they do have a handful of budding young defensemen who have been No. 1 defensemen at various stages in their junior, collegiate and/or minor league careers. Once they have logged another season or two in the NHL, who knows? One or more of them might be capable of filling that role. Morrisonn certainly has his mind set on that kind of role at some point, and believes the future is now.

“I want to become a guy they can look at as the No. 1 or No. 2 defenseman this year,” he says. “I’m probably not going to get too much time on the power play and I realize that, but I want to try to be a little more offensive and try to put some numbers up. I want to play against the top lines and shut down the top lines and have a good plus rating. Of course, getting to the playoffs is the main goal for everybody here this year. That’s my goal this year. If we do that, that’s a pretty good year.”

No one will argue with that.

Roster Trimmed – The Capitals reassigned 11 players on Tuesday. Goaltender Daren Machesney, forwards Louis Robitaille, Matt Stefanishion, Joey Tenute, and Steve Werner and defensemen Trevor Byrne and Sasha Pokulok were assigned to Washington’s Hershey Bears affiliate in the AHL. Goaltender Michal Neuvirth, defenseman Patrick McNeill and forwards Francois Bouchard and Oskar Osala were assigned to their respective junior teams in the CHL. Tuesday’s cuts leave the Capitals with a total of 38 players (four goaltenders, 12 defensemen and 22 forwards) remaining in camp.

Lineup Set – The Caps posted the lineup for Wednesday night’s preseason opened against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Verizon Center. Washington will start Olie Kolzig in goal, and Kolzig is likely to go the distance. If he cannot for any reason, Maxime Daigneault will be dressed as the backup.

The defensive pairs will be Brian Pothier with Shaone Morrisonn, Steve Eminger with Ben Clymer, and Mike Green with Jeff Schultz.

Up front, the Caps will feature Alex Ovechkin and Richard Zednik with Brian Sutherby. Tomas Fleischmann and Matt Pettinger will flank Kris Beech. Brooks Laich will center for Alexander Semin and Donald Brashear, and Rico Fata will skate between Matt Bradley and Eric Fehr.

Don’t Tread On Me – Sutherby gave left wing Chad Wiseman a quick but firm and authoritative tune-up after the latter was guilty of a knee-on-knee hit to the former in Tuesday’s scrimmage. Sutherby dropped Wiseman with a couple quick punches. Sutherby continued, his knee none the worse for wear, while Wiseman retired to the locker room for the remainder of the afternoon.

Scrimmage Scraps – The Caps took part in two “half scrimmages” on Tuesday, with the Black and White teams taking a break in between for the ice to be resurfaced. Kolzig started for Black, and looked especially sharp. He did not allow a goal. His White counterpart Brent Johnson was nicked for a pair, one by Wiseman and another by Boyd Gordon.

Daigneault went for Black in the second half with Frederic Cassivi at the opposite end for White. Black blueliner Bryan Muir scored on a nifty backhander with assists going to Pettinger and Beech. Laich netted another for Black when he chipped in a rebound.

White finally got on the board late in the proceedings, but did so with the prettiest goal of the day. Lawrence Nycholat snapped a hard, tape-to-tape pass from the right point across to Green, who was camped at the top of the left circle. Green cocked and fired a bullet of a one-timer that beat Daigneault as he tried to go coast to coast for the save.
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