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Morrissey's wild ride leads to NHL debut

Jets prospect worked hard in Manitoba after training camp cut

by Patrick Williams / Correspondent

What a difference 56 games in the American Hockey League can make for a first-round pick.

Manitoba Moose defenseman Josh Morrissey's AHL season started quietly in Fargo, N.D., in a preseason game against the Iowa Wild. That debut came after a disappointing training camp with the Winnipeg Jets that resulted in Morrissey being among the early cuts.

"As soon as I got sent down, I immediately got to work, started to work on the things I needed to," Morrissey said. "It is a comfort level, your first year of pro hockey."

But five months later, the call to the NHL can arrive at the most random of times. Morrissey was in San Antonio with the Moose last Friday when the news came that Jacob Trouba might not be able to play, and he could be needed as an emergency recall.

Some 24 hours after that recall, Morrissey stood on the MTS Centre blue line last Saturday with the Jets in a pairing with Tyler Myers. The fabled Montreal Canadiens stood in as the opponent for Morrissey's NHL debut, a Hockey Night in Canada broadcast with Morrissey's parents watching from the MTS Centre seats.

"Once I found out I would be playing, I was able to call [my parents] and let them know to get some flights booked," Morrissey said. "There were some tears, some high elation for sure."

After the game, a 4-2 Winnipeg win, Morrissey's emotions remained high.

"[There are] just so many emotions," Morrissey said to Winnipeg reporters after skating 15:54 in his debut. "Standing on the blue line … playing the Canadiens, playing here at home. Hockey Night in Canada and then being able to get the win on top of it, it's a special night. It's something I'll never forget."

In between that AHL preseason game and NHL debut, Morrissey has endured a season with the Moose that would test even a 30-year-old veteran. Manitoba and Iowa are tied for the fewest points in the AHL.

But even in the midst of a trying season, there are bright spots for every AHL team when one of its own makes the jump to an NHL roster.

Still 20 years old, Morrissey brought a resume into his first full pro season worthy of any top prospect. He skated for Canada at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship, winning a gold medal. He led the Western Hockey League's Kelowna Rockets to the Memorial Cup final last season. He also possessed AHL playoff experience after a run to the 2014 Calder Cup final with the St. John's IceCaps, Winnipeg's former affiliate.

However, the AHL can slow down even the best prospects, and Morrissey was no exception. The challenges came quickly.

The Moose lost their first six games and managed two wins in their first 12 games. The early-season losses piled up and shoved them out of playoff contention before the season was two months old. Being based in Winnipeg, the Moose face one of the AHL's toughest travel schedules and routinely are on the road for two weeks at a time. An assortment of injuries to veteran defenseman Jay Harrison tested the Manitoba blue line and quickly pushed Morrissey into No. 1 duty.

The adjustment tested Morrissey, but he emerged stronger. He has three goals and 19 assists in those 56 games.

"I think the most my game has grown has probably been on the defensive side, playing against men, playing against bigger bodies, guys with a lot more strength down low below the [top of the defensive circles]," Morrissey said.

"I think defensively having a good gap, using my skating, I wasn't using my skating well enough to keep gaps tight, to get up on the rush. Trying to have my pace up after being in junior for a few years where I could get away with just using my raw skill and skating to carry me in some games."

Morrissey also increasingly started to show the more assertive, physical and engaged style of his WHL days against AHL opponents. 

Jets coach Paul Maurice noted the change as well.

"His body has changed," Maurice said. "He is closer to a man now. He is quite a bit stronger."

By Sunday, Trouba recovered enough to replace Morrissey in the lineup. As an emergency recall, Morrissey's NHL stint ended with an assignment back to the AHL.

But Morrissey's days there may be numbered, Maurice predicted Sunday.

"We're going to see him again," Maurice said. "He'll be back."

Providence Bruins rookie Frank Vatrano's other-worldly season continues. His hat trick Sunday against the Portland Pirates featured three unassisted goals and moved him into the AHL lead at 29 goals. The 21-year-old, who went undrafted, became the third player in AHL history to score three unassisted goals in one game.

By comparison, Albany Devils veteran Mike Sislo's 27 goals place him second in the league; however, he has played 54 games to Vatrano's 28. Since returning to Providence after 30 games with the Boston Bruins on Jan. 21, Vatrano has 19 goals in 18 games. He is averaging 5.2 shots per game.

Vatrano highlights a Providence attack that is fifth in AHL scoring with 3.08 goals per game; their 31.6 shots per game rank ninth. Their 22.4 percent power play tops the AHL, as does their home power play (28.0).

Second in AHL scoring, Seth Griffith has 63 points (20 goals, a league-leading 43 assists), one off the league lead. Center Alexander Khokhlachev has 47 points (15 goals, 32 assists) in 42 games.

The Providence offense has helped to power a 21-game point streak on home ice (17-0-3-1), four games shy of the AHL record set by the 2009-10 Hershey Bears. Providence started the season with three wins in its first 10 games at Dunkin' Donuts Center.

Rockford IceHogs goaltender Michael Leighton set a new league record with his 46th shutout last Saturday in a 5-0 win against the Lake Erie Monsters. Leighton, 34, moved past Hockey Hall of Fame member Johnny Bower, whose record stood for nearly 59 years.

The NHL Trade Deadline passed last week, but the AHL has a second deadline that wrapped up Monday afternoon. Players can be traded or loaned between AHL teams.

Highlighting the day was a move between the Bakersfield Condors and Charlotte Checkers, two teams fighting to remain in contention for the Calder Cup playoffs.

The Checkers loaned veteran forward Zach Boychuk to the Condors for playmaker Andrew Miller. Boychuk's NHL rights remain with the Carolina Hurricanes and Miller stays under contract with the Edmonton Oilers.

Miller, 27, was second in Bakersfield scoring with 39 points (15 goals, 24 assists). 

Boychuk, 26, is the leading scorer in Charlotte history with 275 points (123 goals, 152 assists) in a franchise-leading 337 games. Carolina selected Boychuk No. 14 in the 2008 NHL Draft. This season with the Checkers, Boychuk had nine goals and 16 assists in 56 games.

A few hours later, the Checkers made another trade, this one with the Utica Comets. They loaned veteran center T.J. Hensick, a four-time AHL all-star, to the Comets for veteran center Blair Jones. The parent Carolina Hurricanes also acquired forward Dane Fox from the Vancouver Canucks; Fox will report to Charlotte.

Hensick, who has seven goals and 18 assists, is an excellent passer and can help Utica's 24th-ranked power play. Jones had nine goals and six assists in 36 games for the Comets.

Charlotte has added Miller, Jones, defenseman Dennis Robertson, top forward prospect Valentin Zykov, goaltender John Muse and forward Anthony Camara.

The moves are the latest steps taken to jolt the Checkers back to life. Charlotte has endured an up-and-down season featuring two franchise records. After assembling a 12-game point streak, Charlotte followed that with a 10-game losing streak. The Grand Rapids Griffins swept the Checkers in a two-game series at Charlotte last weekend, leaving the Checkers with three wins in their past 18 games. Charlotte's best path to the playoffs is likely via a crossover spot.

Bakersfield is in its own playoff fight in the Pacific Division, where point percentage determines playoff seeding. Fifth in the division, the Condors are .028 behind the fourth-place San Jose Barracuda.

The AHL-leading Toronto Marlies ran into their first rough patch of the season last weekend, losing all three games. The three-game losing streak is the longest of the season for the Marlies, and the road will not become any easier this weekend with another 3-in-3 weekend. After visiting Portland on Friday, the Marlies head to Providence for the first time this season Saturday. The game will feature the Marlies' top-ranked offense against Vatrano, Griffith, Khokhlachev and the rest of the Bruins. Toronto also is seventh in the AHL with 2.57 goals-against per game. For Providence, the game is part of a rare weekend with all three games at home.

The AHL named Vatrano its CCM/AHL Player of the Week for the period ending Sunday. He had four goals and an assist in three games.

Hershey Bears forward Chris Bourque holds the AHL lead with 64 points (25 goals, 39 assists). … Ontario Reign goaltender Peter Budaj's 1.59 goals-against average and 31 wins lead all AHL goaltenders. His .935 save percentage, eight shutouts and 2,646 minutes also top the AHL.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins captain Tom Kostopoulos became the fourth player in hockey history to appear in 600 games in the NHL and 600 games in the AHL. Kostopoulos, 37, has 14 goals and 19 assists in 58 games with the Penguins. … Grand Rapids has won eight games in a row. … Acquired from the Binghamton Senators in a seven-player trade, veteran forward Cole Schneider debuted with the Rochester Americans with a goal and three assists in his first two games. Another addition, center Eric O'Dell, had two goals and an assist in two games. Rochester won twice last weekend in a struggle to remain in the North Division race. … The Penguins added center Dustin Jeffrey, 28, from the Springfield Falcons, and he had a goal and three assists in his first three games. Pushed out of first place in the Atlantic Division by Hershey, the Penguins split a weekend home-and-home series with the Bears. … Ten AHL players made their NHL debut this past week, bringing the season total to 109.

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