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NHL Heritage Classic

Morrissey relishing increased responsibility among Jets defensemen

24-year-old now mentor to younger players as Winnipeg prepares for Heritage Classic

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

WINNIPEG -- Josh Morrissey is playing his fourth full NHL season with the Winnipeg Jets, but it's his first without a safety net.

The 24-year-old had been part of a deep group of Jets defensemen since arriving as a full-time player in 2016-17, but he unquestionably is Winnipeg's No. 1 this season after an offseason of turnover and upheaval.

Former top-pair defense partner Jacob Trouba was traded to the New York Rangers on June 17 for defenseman Neal Pionk and the No. 20 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft (used to select defenseman Ville Heinola). Tyler Myers (Vancouver Canucks) and Ben Chiarot (Montreal Canadiens) left as free agents in July. Dustin Byfuglien was granted a leave of absence for personal reasons Sept. 13 and has yet to return.


[RELATED: Full 2019 NHL Heritage Classic coverage]


"You're always excited about more opportunity," Morrissey said. "But with that comes more responsibility. I'm excited. I've really wanted to, and feel l have the opportunity, to take my game to the next level. And sometimes the way it works in this league is that you're kind of thrown into the fire.

"Sometimes, that's when you get the absolute best out of a player. So that's what I'm looking forward to doing this year, and to prove it to myself, that I can go to another level in different areas of my game."

Morrissey, who has six assists in nine games this season and 83 points (19 goals, 64 assists) in 232 NHL games, will take that challenge to a bigger stage when the Jets play the Calgary Flames in the 2019 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, Saskatchewan, on Saturday (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN1, CITY, TVAS2, NHL.TV).

The left-shot defenseman won't be on his own, but he'll be without the older three right shots who were his partner at one time or another the previous three seasons: Myers, Trouba and Byfuglien.

Each mentored or supported Morrissey since he was the No. 13 pick of the 2013 NHL Draft, especially Byfuglien.

Video: WPG@MIN: Morrissey pots OT winner for the Jets

Coincidentally, Byfuglien is a big reason Morrissey is ready to take on a much bigger role.

During training camp ahead of the 2016-17 season, Byfuglien, impressed with Morrissey's game, went to coach Paul Maurice and suggested he should play with "the kid."

Morrissey said when Maurice took him aside after practice a few days later to share what Byfuglien had said, he felt a new kind of confidence and belonging.

"[Byfuglien] has a huge heart, he's a great person," Morrissey said. "When you're coming in and you have a guy who's won a Stanley Cup and ... had already been a top player for a long time, to kind of say, 'Hey, I want to play with you, I want to help you get acclimatized getting into the League and feel comfortable,' it means the world. It's immediately a weight off your shoulders as a young player and it speaks volumes about him and the kind of person he is."

Morrissey likely will be paired with Tucker Poolman, a 26-year-old who has played 34 NHL games, or Pionk, a 24-year-old who's played 112 games and is in his third NHL season.

Winnipeg's new group of defensemen also includes 24-year-old Carl Dahlstrom, who was claimed on waivers from the Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 1, and the 18-year-old Heinola.

There is no doubt, however, that Morrissey, who agreed to terms on an eight-year, $50 million contract extension (average annual value of $6.25 million) on Sept. 12, will be shouldering the heaviest load.

"He will not be in my office complaining about ice time, ever," Maurice said before the regular season began.

Morrissey leads the Jets in ice time per game this season (24:30). His time on ice has climbed steadily since his rookie season in 2016-17, from 19:29 per game to 20:27 in 2017-18 to 22:24 last season.

The rise was commensurate with how quickly Morrissey built trust with his teammates and coaches.

After one season with Manitoba of the American Hockey League (and one NHL game) in 2015-16, Morrissey was 21 when he earned his full-time roster spot.

"Josh's curve didn't fit anything I've seen, I don't think, where you go from ... I don't want to say question marks, but you play in the AHL and it's not like you played 40 or 50 [for the Jets and] we know you're right there," Maurice said. "So he went from the AHL to 20 games into his first year and I haven't even showed him any video yet because we can't find him making mistakes, we can't correct much of what he does. So he's been at a real high, consistent level since the day he stepped in."

One of the keys to Morrissey's swift progress was quickness, in puck retrievals and to close gaps as a defender. It's an important quality because he's not the biggest defenseman (6-foot, 195 pounds). Another was learning to relax a little.

After he was drafted, Morrissey was the usual combination of high hopes and good intentions. But it led to trying too hard and thinking too much during his first three NHL training camps.

"The general theme for me [at age 18, 19, 20] was that I felt like each shift I had to do something," he said. "I had to make the team on each one of those shifts, and what ends up happening was that I'd tighten up and be afraid to make a mistake. At that point you're in trouble as a player.

"I feel like the big difference [in 2016] for me was mentally. If you make a mistake, make it and keep going. So that was the biggest change, between the ears."

Morrissey's intelligence made it inevitable he'd figure it out, Jets captain Blake Wheeler said.

"I think it took him a little time, and I think the biggest thing for him was confidence," Wheeler said. "He's a really smart guy and probably overthinks things a little bit, and as a young player he just thought about it too much. Once he got his first taste he kind of knew he wasn't going anywhere and he was going to be on the team and his confidence grew. The sky's the limit for him."

Wheeler said there's a strong respect for what Morrissey invests into his game, one of the reasons the Jets have made him an alternate captain for the first time this season.

"He's the type of guy that's just a natural leader," Wheeler said. "Guys gravitate toward him. That's just going to come naturally. He's going to be in a leadership position, probably already is today, and it's just going to expand as he gets older."

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