When Derek Morris
arrived at the Boston Bruins
' training camp last September, his former team, the Phoenix Coyotes
, were making more news off the ice than on it.
There were ownership questions, financial problems and a coaching change. There also was turmoil among the players, sparked by six-straight playoff-less seasons. When Morris was traded to the New York Rangers
at the 2009 trade deadline, team morale was lower than low.
"It was just a mess," said Morris, who spent parts of five seasons with the Coyotes. "There didn't seem to be any direction and you weren't psyched to come to the rink. When that happens, you're not going to win a lot and that was the case then."
But no longer. Morris is back in Phoenix, having been returned there at the 2010 trade deadline. Now, the Coyotes are the NHL's Cinderella team, going from worse to first with a nine-game win streak after the Olympic break, while establishing themselves as a legit contender in the Western Conference. Phoenix recently clinched a playoff spot for the first time since the 2001-02 season, and now the goal is to make some noise in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
For Morris, the atmosphere and the confidence around the Coyotes is like night and day from when he left. Morris admitted he was upset to leave Boston, a place he and his family really considered making their new home. But to come back to the reinvigorated Coyotes and a familiar living environment made the quick transition that much easier.
"It really is amazing how much better it is here," Morris said. "People are actually talking about the Coyotes. There's a buzz for sure and there's fans in the stands. Also, I know the area well. I still have a place here, so that part was obviously a lot easier. I am missing the people of Boston there and just their passion. You don't find people like that everywhere, but if I had to go anywhere, this was the place and I'm happy to be back."
On the ice, times are even better as the Coyotes are playing with loads of confidence and with veterans and young players all chipping in and striving for one goal.
"They always had a good group of kids here, but they've mixed in a great bunch of veterans, made some really good acquisitions at the deadline bringing in (Lee) Stempniak, (Wojtek) Wolski, Mathieu Schneider
, and there's just a great mix."
The culture change and the on-ice product started with the hiring of coach Dave Tippett
and assistant coach Dave King, whom Morris calls "the defensive wizard" for his unique and successful defensive schemes.
"It was hard leaving Boston because I was so blessed to work with a guy like (assistant coach) Craig Ramsey and he is just one of the best defense coaches in the League, but I got one of equal caliber in Dave King," Morris said. "'Kinger' just lives and breathes the stuff and it's amazing how he has this blue line in sync with so much calm. But that's the case throughout the lineup, too, because of Dave Tippett
, who I always thought of as one of the best, but most underrated, coaches in hockey. This is just a great staff, with (assistant coach) Ulfie Samuelsson, too, and just the whole system and culture in place now is so much better."
Another noticeable difference is the play and approach by goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov
, who seemingly has found his niche in Phoenix and is a leading candidate for the Vezina Trophy. Bryzgalov was a career backup who had one significant run with the Anaheim Ducks
in 2006 before coming to Phoenix on waivers.
"You know 'Bryz' has always been a care-free guy and a great guy to keep the dressing room light," Morris said. "Now, he's translating that onto the ice. He's positioned better to the puck, he doesn't give up many rebounds, making it easier on us D-men. He reminds me a lot of Tuukka Rask
in Boston, who I think is a future star for them. 'Bryz' is our backbone and we're lucky to have him playing this way."
So can this turnaround actually have an amazing storybook ending, with the Coyotes hoisting the Stanley Cup in the desert?
"Obviously the West is so strong, but I really think this team is built for a good playoff run, so who knows?" Morris said. "I mean, there's just the right mix of skill, grit and leadership. 'Doaner' (captain Shane Doan
) is having an MVP season in my eyes and we've got some hungry kids that have the skill. Everyone believes now, and when you got that, anything can happen. I'm just happy to be part of this again."