Being traded two weeks ago did not come as a surprise to 30-year-old defenseman Derek Morris, but being traded to the New York Rangers did.
In the final hours before the NHL trade deadline arrived at 3 p.m. on March 4, Morris already knew his days with the Phoenix Coyotes were history. Three weeks earlier, he had been informed by Coyotes General Manager Don Maloney that Phoenix would trade him at the deadline rather than let him leave the organization as an unrestricted free agent on July 1. The decision to trade Morris came after the Coyotes and Morris could not agree upon a contract extension that would keep him off the open market.
|Derek Morris is eager to return to the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring after missing the postseason over the past several years with the Phoenix Coyotes. |
Moving Morris to another team, however, was not a simple process because a clause in his contract prevented the Coyotes from trading him without his approval. Morris said Maloney told him about teams that were interested in his services and asked him which ones he would be willing to join. Morris said that while he accepted the idea of a trade, he wouldn’t necessarily accept any team.
“We had been talking for awhile about a new contract, and then nothing really happened, so I just felt it was time for a change,” Morris said. “I wanted an opportunity to get to a team that was either in a battle for the playoffs or was going to be in the playoffs. ”
Despite Maloney’s historic ties to the Rangers, where he spent more than two decades as a player and executive, the Blueshirts were not among the teams initially presented to Morris as possible destinations. In fact, it wasn’t until a few hours before the trade deadline that the Rangers came onto his radar. Once they did, deadline day took a huge turn for the better.
“When the Rangers told me they were interested, I was ecstatic,” said Morris. “I went to my wife and my family and said it would be a great opportunity and a great place to play. I told them it is one spot that is known around the league as the best organization in the league. And it was an honor to be picked by them. … As soon as you find out that the Rangers are interested, it’s a no-brainer.”
Even more appealing than the Rangers’ past reputation was Morris’ sense of the Blueshirts’ future. Having not been to the Stanley Cup playoffs since his lone trip there with Colorado six years ago, Morris knew he needed to make sure he’d be playing beyond the regular season.
“That’s my main thing,” he said. “As you get older, you want to play playoff hockey. You want to play important hockey, and you want to play on a winning team. When I was looking around, the Rangers hadn’t talked to us to start with and we were kind of looking at other teams that were in the playoff run. When the Rangers came into the picture I looked at the way the team was going with the new coach and the way the team had been playing. I just felt this team was going in the right direction at the right time.”
An 11-year NHL veteran who has played in Calgary, Colorado and Phoenix, Morris was traded twice before in high -profile deals. He went from the Flames to the Avalanche in an October 2002 trade involving current Rangers captain Chris Drury and then from the Avs to the Coyotes in 2004 as part of a four-player deadline move.
Despite having to temporarily leave his family and uproot himself after five comfortable years in Phoenix, Morris knew he had found an ideal home with the Rangers and promptly waived his no-trade clause on March 4. He caught a flight to New York that evening and took part in the Rangers’ morning skate the following day at the Nassau Coliseum. Just over 24 hours after being traded, Morris and fellow deadline acquisition Nik Antropov were skating for the Rangers in a 4-2 win over the Islanders.
“It was short notice, that’s for sure, but the organization here was unbelievable,” Morris said of his transition. “I got down here quick. With the exception of leaving your family for the length of time I had to leave them, it’s been very, very smooth and very, very easy.”
Familiar faces also made the adjustment easier for Morris. Forward Fredrik Sjostrom and defenseman Paul Mara are former teammates from Phoenix, and fellow blueliner Wade Redden
skated with Morris on the 1999 Canadian squad that placed fourth at the World Championships in Norway.
“These guys have really helped me getting down to the practice facility, because I have no idea how to get here yet and it’s a long drive,” Morris said. “Getting down to MSG, too. It’s a big city compared to what I’ve been used to, but the organization is so good that they make everything so smooth.”
In his Rangers debut on Long Island, Morris received 16:42 of ice time, and that number has steadily risen through his first six games with the team. In last weekend’s home-and-home series vs. Philadelphia, he averaged more than 20 minutes of ice time, and he was on the ice for 21:09 in Tuesday night’s overtime shootout win at Montreal.
His propensity for shooting from the point, particularly on the power play, also paid big dividends in the game against the Flyers, as he blasted the shot that Sean Avery
deflected into the net for the Rangers’ first goal in Sunday’s 4-1 win at MSG. That was Morris’ second point in a Rangers uniform. His first came one week earlier when he set up another power-play goal by Scott Gomez in a 4-3 win over Boston at MSG.
Morris credits his new teammates for making his entrance into the lineup appear so seamless.
“The guys on the team are great,” he said. “You look at the leaders we have on the team, and they’ve really stepped up their game. Scotty Gomez and Chris Drury are two examples. They’re both playing their best hockey right now, or at least the best that I’ve seen them play in awhile, and that’s how you’re going to win. You need your best six, seven, or eight guys to be the best players on the ice, and everybody kind of falls in behind them. And those guys have been our best players. So we’re going to be successful in the way that they are, and they’re bringing an attitude every single day to work harder than everybody, so that’s just a benefit.”
Even if he downplays his own role, it hardly seems a coincidence that the Rangers’ power play has been averaging nearly a goal per game since Morris joined the team. Prior to Morris’ arrival, the Blueshirts had been averaging 0.56 goals per game.
“Our power play was good (vs. Philadelphia) because everybody was shooting,” said Morris. “We did a real good job of having good screens in front, and the goalie couldn’t see much. Our forwards were also doing a good job of holding it on the wall, allowing us to get open and then getting us good passes.”
Former Coyotes teammate Sjostrom said he immediately recognized what Morris would bring to the table after learning that the defenseman would be joining the team.
“He’s a heck of a player,” Sjostrom said of Morris. “He’s got really nice hands and sees the ice well. He’s shoots the puck really well, too. We’ve been shooting a lot more in games from the point, and I think Derek has been a big part of that.”
|Morris played his first game as a Ranger at Madison Square Garden on March 8 vs. Boston and picked up his first point as a Blueshirt with an assist in that game. |
In his best statistical NHL season, Morris put up 48 points for the Colorado Avalanche in 2002-03. While his overall career numbers aren’t staggering, it is impossible not to notice his remarkable steadiness in the offensive zone and his ability to contribute to the kind of attacking game embraced by Rangers head coach John Tortorella.
Morris said that having Tortorella behind the bench is a big plus and the opportunity to play for the Rangers coach factored into his decision to leave Phoenix.
“Our trainer in Phoenix (Jason Serbus) had been the trainer in Tampa Bay,” said Morris.
“I asked a lot about him (Tortorella), and he had nothing but good things to say. I’ve also talked to other players who I know that have played for him, but you know the reputations of all the coaches in the league. You know how they coach, you know what type of guys they are. I knew he was a very intense individual but a very fair individual and he would help this team win.”
His new coach is certainly a change from his last one. In Phoenix, Morris was coached by hockey legend and former Ranger Wayne Gretzky.
Initially, the experience of playing for Gretzky caused Morris to feel a sense of awe, “but then you realize that he’s there to coach and to help you out and help you win. And that (celebrity) kind of gets put aside and you just looked at him as your coach.”
As a veteran who was already in the NHL when Gretzky was still playing, Morris had a unique perspective on Gretzky’s development as a coach.
“He’s very laid-back,” Morris said of the Great One. “He’s getting more intense now. He’s turning into a better coach now than I think he was at first. He used to let his assistant coaches do a little bit more of the coaching. Now he’s taking over the coaching reins. So hopefully if he stays there for a couple more years he’ll get an opportunity to win.”
Gretzky, of course, played his final NHL game as a Ranger at MSG, a place that has always inspired Morris during his visits as an opponent and which he feels will be a big asset to the Rangers come playoff time.
“The fans here are very passionate about the team, win or lose,” said Morris. “If you’re losing, they’re mad that you’re losing, and when you’re winning they’re really happy. And that’s what you want as hockey players -- passionate fans that actually care about the game. You know when you came in as a visiting team that you were coming into a building that is very loud and that really supports their team. So you’re in a real tough building to win in. I think the team plays really, really well at home and the reason they do it a lot is because of the fans.”