Green has garnered a lot of praise and press recently, and deservedly so. He has been one of the league’s best defensemen for the better part of the last two months, and few would have been surprised if he had been named to the Eastern Conference all-star team this month. But quietly and with far less fanfare, Morrisonn has also been playing some of the best hockey of his NHL career of late.
The 25-year-old Morrisonn is in his fifth pro season and his third full NHL campaign. He averaged just under 21 minutes a night in each of the last two seasons as one of the more dependable defensemen on a team that was clearly in transition on the blueline.
Towards the end of last season, Morrisonn and Milan Jurcina were frequently used as the Capitals’ shutdown pair, the defensive duo deployed against the opposition’s top offensive line. When the 2007-08 season got underway, both players were in the same role.
After a 3-0 start, Washington fell into a 3-14-1 funk. Like almost everyone else on the team, Morrisonn and Jurcina’s performances and numbers suffered during that span. The Caps were 1-7-1 in the nine games immediately preceding Washington’s early season coaching change, and Morrisonn was minus-8 in those nine games. Jurcina was a healthy scratch for the first time in his Washington career during that period, and the duo was busted up.
Even more telling were Morrisonn’s ice time totals. Twice during those nine games, he dipped below 13 minutes on the night. The man known as “Mo” to his teammates has played in more than 200 games in a Capitals sweater, and those are the only two of those games in which his time on ice has slipped below 13 minutes.
“It was a tough time,” Morrisonn admits. “We were losing and there was a coaching change. I think we kind of fell out of favor with [former Caps coach] Glennie [Hanlon] while he was here. We weren’t playing that much and we weren’t playing against the top lines. That’s our job. [Jurcina] got scratched and I was playing with other guys. We were trying to switch things up, but nothing was going right for us. We were 6-14. You knew change was coming.”
That change came on Nov. 22 when Boudreau was installed behind the bench, replacing Glen Hanlon. One of Boudreau’s first tasks was to pair Morrisonn with Green, and the partnership worked so well from the start that the tandem has remained together in each of the 23 games since.
“I was pretty comfortable with Tommy [Poti],” said Green after his first game alongside Morrisonn on Nov. 23, “but I felt very comfortable playing with [Morrisonn]. I hope he felt the same way, too.”
“For whatever reason, it just wasn’t clicking for Mo and Juice early on,” says Caps goaltender Olie Kolzig. “But I think he’s found his game. He’s steady back there. What we have in Greenie, we have the equal in Mo’s defensive ability.”
Green’s offensive abilities have blossomed since Boudreau took over, and he has become the team’s most prolific offensive defenseman since Sergei Gonchar. Partners Joe Reekie and later Brendan Witt – both stay-at-homers who minded the store while Gonchar was off at the other end of the ice – enabled Gonchar’s offensive flurries by staying back and guarding against potential odd-man breaks. Those pairings worked well for many years.
“That’s a great comparison,” says Kolzig. “Mo is a little more mobile than Joe Reekie. He might have some better hands – and I hope Reeks hears this, because I’m sure I’ll get a call from him. And Greenie might be a little bit shiftier than Gonch. There’s not much of a difference between him and Gonch, but we haven’t had a defenseman like Greenie since Gonch was here. It’s definitely a welcome addition.”
“It’s not unlike Gonch and Reekie,” says Caps general manager George McPhee. “One guy is a stay-at-home defenseman and the other one generates offense. The nice thing about Mo is that he is mobile. He can move and he defends really well. But we still believe he can do more offensively. What they do now is excellent, but there is always room for improvement.”
There has already been a great deal of improvement. Perhaps the best indicator of a defenseman’s value is his ice time. Before Boudreau took over, Morrisonn was averaging just over 18 minutes a game, well off his average of the last two seasons. In the 23 games since Boudreau took over the reins, Morrisonn is skating 20:37 a night. For the season, Morrisonn has averaged 3:37 per night in shorthanded ice time pre contest, just a shade behind Poti’s 3:41 for the team lead among Caps defensemen.
Morrisonn has also vastly improved his plus-minus rating over the last 23 games, posting a plus-13 rating in the 23 games since Boudreau took over.
“Bruce came in and tried out some pairings,” says Morrisonn. “He put me and Greenie together to play against the [other team’s] top line. I think he likes having Greenie out there because he can control the puck. If we can control the puck more than their top line, it’s a positive. It’s great having Greenie out there and I can be solid defensively and cover him up, too.”
You can tell when an offensive defenseman is in a slump, but it can be a little more difficult to tell when a stay-at-homer is struggling.
“An offensive defenseman, you can definitely tell,” says Kolzig. “He’s not getting the points or he’s not scoring, you can definitely tell. But a defensive defenseman, the only way you can really tell is if he gets burned pretty badly on a play or if you look at his plus/minus over a certain amount of time.”
A defenseman always knows when he is struggling, however.
“When you’re just not getting the breaks,” says Morrisonn when asked how he knows he’s struggling. “You have a job – and our job is to play against the other team’s top line – and you’re getting beat one-on-one and you’re not making great plays. You’re in a slump then. Plus/minus is tough because there are five guys on the ice and sometimes it’s not your fault but you still get hit with the minus.”
Ironically, Morrisonn came to the Capitals in a trade that sent Gonchar to the Bruins almost four years ago (Mar. 3, 2004). Gonchar was drafted in the first round (14th overall) in the 1992 NHL Entry Draft, and Morrisonn was Boston’s first choice (19th overall) in the 2001 draft. Now that rotation of Washington’s defensive stock has Morrisonn is playing the Reekie/Witt role to Green.
“Some guys have good chemistry,” says Boudreau. “They seem to work. We’ve given Mo the job of shutting down the other teams’ best offensive forwards. He has taken that to heart, he has embraced it and he has done a great job with it. He has a great stick. He is always in the right position, and he allows Mike Green
a little more freedom because he is so good defensively.”
When Morrisonn joined the Caps nearly four years ago, he was a raw but talented 21-year-old kid. He has since harnessed some of that talent, and the experience he has gained in the meantime has also made a great deal of difference for him and the Capitals. The Vancouver native is now the third most experienced defenseman on a young Washington blueline corps, trailing only Poti and Brian Pothier in terms of NHL games played.
“I have a lot more confidence,” says Morrison, when asked to relate the difference between the “Mo” of today and the player who came to the District four years ago. “Before I was just breaking into the league. The game was a lot faster for me playing defense. I found it was hard to adjust.
“Now, I’m very comfortable out there. I know what I can do. I have a great feel for the game and the game has slowed down so much in those three years for me, just having experience and learning from older guys that I’ve played with like Nick Boynton in Boston and Brendan Witt and Jamie Heward here.
“You learn from those guys and you try to adjust and hone your game during the summer and during the season to make it easier on yourself. I fit into a role now as a defensive defenseman playing with Greenie. My job is to protect my end, make good plays and be back there and be liable and be counted on every night to be consistent.”
Morrisonn has filled that role to a tee. Green’s hard-charging rushes with the puck and his ability to light the lamp will always excite the fans, but Morrisonn also has the capability to thrill. In a Jan. 9 game against the Colorado Avalanche, he made a head-long dive to perfectly pokecheck the puck off the stick of the Avs’ Marek Svatos, who was careening in on a breakaway at the time. The Caps ended up winning the game 2-1, so Morrisonn’s move may have resulted in a standings point.
“Mo is a very solid and sound defenseman,” says Green. “He is very easy to read off of and he helps me out there so much. You always know where is going to be on the ice because he is so positionally sound. When I first came here, I would watch him, even though he was [one of the] younger [guys]. I give him a lot of credit. For me, it’s very nice to play with a defenseman like that where you know exactly where he is going to be. And he has helped me a lot, which is overlooked because he is so young. But he’s a veteran to me.”
The Morrisonn-Green tandem has been excellent, but the team has also played well during the same period of time. Washington is now 12-6-5 in Boudreau’s 23 games behind the bench.
“I think our team is playing the best it has played in the three years I have been here,” declares Morrisonn. “I think individually I feel good out there. It’s so much easier when everybody is on the same page and guys don’t have to try as much individually because you always have someone doing their job, taking care of little mistakes here and there.
“That’s how we’re getting the wins. Before, guys were trying too hard and other guys weren’t helping them out and then that mistake would just get exposed. I’d say I’m probably playing the same way, just being solid. But I think our team has been playing unbelievable. This is the best I’ve ever seen the team play. Even in practice you can tell. In practice we have energy and guys are happy. I’ve never seen this since I’ve been with the Washington Capitals. It’s great and it’s showing on the ice, too.”
In Morrisonn’s case, it’s usually showing on and off the ice.
“He is always talking to me, whether it’s on the ice or on the bench,” says Green. “And that has helped me because I voice up and I start talking. It just seems like communication solves everything out there and he has installed that. Not only that, he’s a really good guy. He jokes around but he is serious when he needs to be serious. It always helps when you have a good relationship with a guy off the ice.”
The Caps can only hope that the Morrisonn-Green relationship proves to be as long and prosperous as the ones Gonchar had with Reekie and then Witt. If that’s the case, the team’s top pairing will be set for the better part of a decade.