As one of the Hurricanes’ steadiest performers this season, defenseman Jay Harrison
ought to finally be feeling good about the safety of his job. As it turns out, old habits die hard.
In his first full NHL season at the age of 28, Harrison isn’t taking anything for granted.
“It’s been a pretty good year for me and the fact that I’ve been able to play every day gives you as much security as you can have, but you never have security,” he said.
When considering the steps he’s taken to get to where he is today, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.
As recently as three seasons ago, Harrison, who was not re-signed by the Toronto Maple Leafs organization in summer of 2008, couldn’t find a job in North America. Out of options, he left for the Swiss league.
He did so with the impression that there wouldn’t be any turning back.
“You feel like you’re closing the door on your dream and that you’re cashing out,” he said.
Now, he’s finally fulfilling that dream with the Hurricanes. After a literally up-and-down first season in the organization that featured stints with Carolina and the American Hockey League’s Albany River Rats, a few appearances on the waiver wire and a nagging injury, Harrison, now healthy and more experienced, is a big-league fixture for the first time in his career.
“He certainly appreciates where he is, and he had to work for everything he got,” said coach Paul Maurice, who first coached Harrison with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies in 2005-06. “When he came to this team this year, he wasn’t handed that spot. He earned it and he’s hung on to it. He’s played very well for us.”
At every stop, Harrison has had to fight for his place in the lineup. Even in Switzerland, where league rules prohibited more than four “import” players from suiting up for a team on any given night.
“There was a lot of pressure,” he said. “A lot of teams have six or seven imports on the roster but can only dress four per game, so there’s a lot of competition for playing time.”
That continued upon his return to Toronto in February of that season and in his first campaign with the Hurricanes. Although he played just 38 games with Carolina in 2009-10, that more than quadrupled his career high of eight set with the Maple Leafs back in 2005-06.
That unprecedented opening is what made the timing of his bothersome injury so difficult. It was a problem that needed surgery, but that would have to wait until the offseason.
”I battled through it all season in the minors and here, but it wasn’t a situation where I could afford to miss time,” he said. “That’s the nature of the game when you’re on the cusp, but I had the opportunity here to get that door open, and I wasn’t going to let an injury get in the way.”
That level of dedication, along with an improved skating stride honed on the larger international ice surface in the Swiss league, impressed the Hurricanes enough to bring the gritty 6-foot-4, 211-pound blue liner back on another one-year deal. With Harrison setting career highs in games played (61), goals (3), assists (6), points (9) and penalty minutes (62) while leading all Carolina defensemen in plus/minus (+6) and featuring on the penalty kill, it’s one that the team is not regretting.
Not that Maurice is particularly surprised, given Harrison’s finish to last season.
“I thought in the last 10 games last year there was a change in him,” he said. “Especially for defensemen, you can almost see it in their presence on the ice when they really believe they should be in the league and that they deserve to be there. He brought that back this year, but has continued to grow and improve.”
That level of trust has Harrison confident in his play, but one can forgive him for never feeling too safe. Still, he knows he’s come a long way since he left for Europe three years ago, thinking his window had closed for good.
“That’s the lesson I’d give to any player, because now I’m back, playing in the NHL,” he said.