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For Morris, first pass is the simple solution

by Dan Rosen

Coyotes' defenseman Derek Morris says he's learned that a good first pass can keep your team out of trouble, as his -18 plus/minus last year can attest to.
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A good first pass. Can it really be as simple as that?

That's what Derek Morris will have you believe.

The Phoenix Coyotes' veteran defenseman says a basic, uncomplicated, effortless, no-frills attached good first pass out of the defensive zone is the key that has unlocked the door to what is amounting to his best overall NHL season.

"I think the first pass gets overlooked in the NHL because it's usually the third and fourth one that is in on the play," Morris, a veteran in his 10th season, recently told, "but if you make a good pass to your forward, you can avoid a lot of trouble.

"We try to make a good first pass, and we have been rewarded for it."

Even while playing with the youngest group of forwards in the NHL this season Morris hasn't abandoned his simple-is-better philosophy, and as a result he's turned into one of the steadiest defensemen in the League.

One year removed from being a minus-18 defenseman for the last-place Coyotes, Morris is currently a plus-6 with four goals and 10 assists through 57 games.

While plus-minus can be an overemphasized stat, especially for a defenseman who plays with top-line forwards, in Morris' case it matters greatly considering he plays more than 21 minutes per game on one of the NHL's lowest scoring teams.

"Derek Morris is playing better than I have ever seen him play, and I played against him when he used to whack me all the time," said Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky. "It wouldn't be unfair to say over the first 30-plus games he's been our most consistent player. He's had an outstanding season."

When told of Gretzky's comments, Morris smiled and said he was happy to hear them. But he didn't seem so surprised that Gretzky would laud him like that. As Morris sees it, he's just playing the role Gretzky has asked him to play. The only difference is it's a role Morris has rarely played in the NHL.

"We have been put out there against the top lines and we take pride in not allowing them to score," said Morris, who has played the majority of the season with Keith Ballard as his defense partner. "Obviously it doesn't work every night, but we play hard against them and let the other guys on the team do the scoring.

"I was always on a more offensive role, trying to get up there to create more offense," he later added. "Now (Ballard) and I just try to do a good job with our first pass. The NHL is such a simple game that if you play a simple game it seems like you'll be more successful."

There it is again, that first pass.

Even though he's been in more of an attacking role in years past with Calgary and Colorado, Morris has always tried to abide by the first-pass philosophy.

"It's just a matter of doing it," Morris admitted.

Simple as that.

"You're never as good as you think you are and you're never as bad as you think you are," added Morris, who put up a career high 48 points and was a career-best plus-16 with the Avalanche in 2002-03. "The way I look at the way I'm playing is at the end of the night if we get a win I did my job."

In Phoenix, especially this season, that's a tough way to measure yourself.

The Coyotes are the youngest team in the NHL and have experienced the growing pains that tag alone with youth. They've won 28 of their 57 games, which is roughly middle of the pack in the League, but still probably a bit more than most pundits thought they would have by now.

Derek Morris was originally drafted 13th overall by the Calgary Flames in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft.

Then again, most pundits couldn't have predicted Morris would have a plus-12 turnaround from last season to this season.

"Minuses come quick and they can snowball. That wasn't something any of us was very proud of," Morris said. "Our team this year is better defensively than it was last year. I think our forwards do a better job of not turning pucks over at the blue line, which causes offense against us. You look at our goals against, we've done a good job of bringing it down."

It's true. The Coyotes allowed 3.44 goals per game last season, ranking 28th in the NHL. That number that has dipped to 2.74 this season.

Morris, though, agreed the surprise addition of goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, who basically fell into the Coyotes' laps when he was put on waivers by the Anaheim Ducks in November, has a lot to do with his plus rating on one of the League's lowest scoring teams.

The Coyotes' 2.65 goals per game rank 18th out of 30 in that department.

"We all like to make our fancy play and our goalie usually has to bail us out," Morris said. "What's nice now is if we do make that mistake our goalie usually makes that save, so it doesn't go quite as noticed."

Morris, though, hasn't been trying to dazzle at all this season. He's instead making a good first pass and staying back. It's not only the simple way of playing against the opposition's best forwards, in Morris's case it's the right way.

"I think he took on the responsibility in the off-season by saying; 'I'm not going to be a weak link to this group. I'm going to play better than I ever have,' " Gretzky said. "He came in with that attitude, and he really has played well."

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