What Washington has lacked for that last decade and a half has been a solid one-two punch at the top of the organizational depth chart up the middle. Only once in the last decade and a half have the Caps had two centers with as many as 50 points in the same season.
With veteran center Brendan Morrison on board this season to give the Caps some offensive support up the middle behind Backstrom, Washington may once again have that one-two pivot punch it has so often lacked over the last 15 years.
A 12-year NHL veteran, Morrison reached the 50-point plateau six straight seasons from 2000-07 with the Vancouver Canucks. He also played in all 82 games in each of those seasons. Hampered by injuries the last two seasons, the 34-year-old native of British Columbia signed a one-year deal with Washington over the summer.
If he can stay healthy, Morrison could be the middle man the Caps have been seeking for some time.
“I can notice a big difference from this time last year as far as overall leg strength,” says Morrison. “I’m feeling good about getting up and down the ice. I am getting back to what’s normal for myself.”
For those six seasons at the beginning of this decade, what was normal for Morrison was 21 goals, 39 assists and 60 points. That was his average production during that span of a half-dozen seasons.
Morrison totaled 25 points in 39 games with the Canucks in 2007-08 and slipped to just 31 points in 2008-09, a season he split between Anaheim and Dallas. Back in the Eastern Conference for the first time since starting the 1999-00 season with the New Jersey Devils, Morrison hopes to revive his career in D.C.
So far, so good. He has three goals and eight points through the first nine games, and he picked up three assists in two games while skating mainly on a line with superstar sniper Alex Ovechkin
“I think it’s going to be a fun system to play,” he says of playing under coach Bruce Boudreau with the Capitals. “We play an up-tempo style, we are aggressive and we have a great transition game. As an offensive player, playing in a system that really emphasizes pushing, aggressive hockey, it should be a lot of fun. We want to move the puck. We want transition.”
Boudreau believes Morrison has a good head for the game.
“He’s smart,’ says the Caps coach of Morrison. “You’re not 5-foot-9 and in the league this many years without being a smart hockey player. And he’s a smart hockey player. He’s got great hockey sense and he can skate.”
Smarts and skating ability were Morrison’s calling cards long before he established himself as a bona fide NHL player. He played four seasons at the University of Michigan (where he was a teammate of fellow Cap MIke Knuble
), winning the Hobey Baker Award as a senior in 1996. Hershey Bears captain Bryan Helmer, who played briefly with the Capitals last season, was a teammate of Morrison’s while both were with the Albany River Rats more than a decade ago. He could tell that Morrison was just passing through at that level.
“He came back down for us in the playoffs that year,” recalls Helmer, “but not during the regular season. He was coming in as a Hobey Baker winner. You could just see how talented he was and such a smooth skater. He scored five goals in one game and we didn’t see him again until the playoffs. And after that he was in the NHL. He’s also a good leader in the dressing room. He is a well-spoken kid, he’s very smart and he obviously knows the game. I also played with him in Vancouver and we became pretty good friends. He’s a good person.”
Traded to Vancouver in the deal that brought Alexander Mogilny to New Jersey, Morrison enjoyed his best years with the Canucks, playing alongside Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi on the vaunted “West Coast Express” line.
“Each of us brought something different,” says Morrison of that noted trio. “Markus was the pure goal scorer, the guy who always seemed to find openings. He had the great wrist shot and also had playmaking ability.
“Todd was a big power guy. He was very physical down low. He created room that way, but he also had a very nice finesse game. He handled the puck well and beat guys out of the corner.
“Me, [I brought] creativity on the line. I think my speed helped create openings and I moved the puck. We all brought something different to the line.”
Few lines remain intact as long as the West Coasters did. The trio stayed together for several seasons.
“I think it was our will,” says Morrison, when asked what fueled the threesome. “We were very hard on each other; in a good way, though. When things weren’t going right we would get pretty heated on the bench and challenge each other to be better. I think that helped us.
“I remember the first time I was put together with them was in Detroit, I think in January of ’02. And we played probably four years together. But we hit it off right away. Over time, you get to know each other’s tendencies – what guys like to do and what guys don’t like to do. It just became second nature. You’re not even thinking; you’re just playing and reacting. When you get to that stage, it’s a lot of fun. Because you don’t have to worry if a guy is going to be there or not going to be there. You just expect him to be there.”
Morrison has played nearly 800 games in the NHL, and he believes he still has a lot left in the tank. His one-year deal with Washington will give him the opportunity to prove that. In his heyday, Morrison played in 542 straight games, the 11th longest streak in NHL history. If he can stay healthy, his head and his ability should take care of the rest.
“I would classify myself as a smart player,” says Morrison, “a guy who tries to be in the right spot at the right time. A lot of times I think the knock on me has been that I’m a guy who looks like he isn’t going 100% all the time. Whereas I beg to differ – I like to think that I am in the right spot and I am not wasting unnecessary energy. I try to think the game through. Sometimes you get caught up. It’s a fine line. You don’t want to think too much, you just want to go out and react and play. If you get in that place then everything will be fine."
Getting adjusted to new linemates can be problematic, but Morrison showed some quick chemistry with Ovechkin and also assisted on Eric Fehr’s first goal of the season in their first shift as linemates.
“I think that a big key is communication,” says Morrison. “Just talking, talking about what you like to do and asking about their tendencies saying things like, ‘Hey listen, if this situation arises and we have the puck high in the zone, I like to be a guy who is low in the zone, so if you get in any trouble throw it low to me.’”
His linemates also appreciate what Morrison brings to the ice.
“I talked to Bruce [Boudreau] about it the other day and the first thing I said was, ‘Brendan is very easy to play with,’” says Brooks Laich
, who has been on the left side of Morrison’s line since the start of the season. “I think that’s the sign of a very good hockey player. His main asset is that he is a very good skater. I didn’t know how good a skater he was. He has a very good stride and he can move the puck. And he complements players around him."
He complements players around him, and sets a great example for the Caps' cadre of younger players. Morrison is an honest hockey player, always available after a tough loss and always candid about the performance of himself and the team.
“Most of the press has been about Mike Knuble
’s arrival and what he’s going to bring to the team," says Laich. "I think the signing of Brendan Morrison is very underrated an it was a great job by management.
“Some players make you adapt to the way they play. Brendan slides in and he can play with this guy and he can play with that guy. He can play with almost anyone; he’s a very good playmaker. He is going to be fantastic for us."
If Morrison is able to supplement Backstrom up the middle and complement his linemates, he could be that elusive second 50-point man the Caps have been seeking up the middle. And that will be great for the Caps and for Morrison’s career.