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Up and down year for Morrow highlighted by Olympic gold

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

The fact that the Winter Olympics interrupted the NHL season for two weeks in February had varying effects on its participants and the league, not least of which was the compressed schedule in March and early April. 

But one significant auxiliary consequence was its impact on Dallas Stars captain Brenden Morrow, who put together his best sustained stretch of the season at the Olympics in Vancouver, helping Team Canada win the gold medal.

Many observers figured that his outstanding performance there would carry over to Dallas as stretch run for the playoffs kicked in, but it didn’t quite work out that way - instead it may have drained him, emotionally and physically. 

While Morrow enjoyed plenty of impressive moments that Stars fans have grown accustomed to over the last few years, including a vintage four-point effort (two goals, two assists) in the Stars’ monumental 8-2 win over San Jose on March 16 and a career-high five-game goal-scoring streak in late November, he also endured times when he looked very much like a man still recovering from missing almost all of the previous season with a torn ACL in his knee. 

Typically, Morrow refused to acknowledge that any possible lingering effects from the injury, which kept him out of the final 64 games of 2008-09, were an excuse for his roller-coaster season.

“I’m disappointed in my year. I had some good things happen and some bad things happen,” said Morrow, who finished his 10th NHL season with a sub-par 20 goals and 46 points in 76 games, his lowest totals for a full campaign since 2002-03. “Confidence is an issue. In your head, you’re always wondering if you’re going to be the same player you were. I struggled with it a lot this year. Everyone I’ve talked to that’s gone through the injury says it takes awhile. Hopefully next year coming in, it’s not in my head. I never had any real problems with it, just the little maintenance stuff here or there, but I wasn’t happy with my overall year.”

The offensive inconsistency was baffling, particularly in how it ebbed and flowed throughout the season. Morrow started well, scoring six goals and 10 points in the first nine games, but shortly afterwards, went through a stretch where he collected just one goal and no assists in nine games. That was followed by the five-game goal-scoring streak, but then came another span where he managed just two goals and five points over 19 contests and one where he recorded one goal and one assist in seven outings. Mixed in was a goalless drought of 18 games. But then Morrow finished strong, notching five goals and 11 points in his final 12 contests, including a goal in the season finale to reach the 20-goal plateau for the sixth time.

But while his offensive game may have sagged a bit this season, the 5-foot-11, 207-pound Morrow’s leadership and physical play remained at elite levels, as evidenced by the 230 hits he dished out, ranking third on the club and 11th in the league.

“Brenden, his game is a simple game - he goes in, he’s very strong on the forecheck, he’s very strong on his net presence,” noted Stars coach Marc Crawford. “He’s a guy that’ll block a shot and he did all those great leadership things.”

Also not helping matters was the somewhat up-and-down season experienced by Mike Ribeiro, his regular center over the past three years. Ribeiro, who missed 15 games in January and February due to a scary neck injury, accepted some of the responsibility for the inconsistent offensive year endured by his partner.

“I think it was a lot for him coming back after an injury like that, not playing all year,” Ribeiro said of Morrow. “And I think the stress of maybe going to the Olympics, not going to the Olympics was in his mind too, knowing if he’s not playing well, he might not get picked. So I think there was a lot on his mind. And for the wingers to play well, a lot of times the center has to do his job right, and I don’t think I helped him on that. We bounced all over with lines. But I think at the bottom of it is confidence, and if you don’t have the confidence and play well, you’ll have a season like we did. It’s a matter of being prepared mentally and making yourself believe in yourself.”

Morrow agreed that he had problems with his confidence at various times, and also that the lack of a regular right winger hindered the outstanding chemistry the duo has enjoyed. It is telling that after Brandon Segal, who was claimed off waivers from LA just before the Olympic break, joined their line, both Ribeiro and Morrow stepped up their production.

“We just didn’t have much consistency, I think, on that one wing, which was different than in years past,” said Morrow, whose solid production down the stretch coincided with Segal’s arrival on their line. “It would be Jere (Lehtinen) for the year or Loui (Eriksson) for months at a time and we just didn’t have a whole lot of consistency - not to say that’s to blame on anyone. And then, for me, personally, struggling with confidence shooting the puck and just how I feel out there was an issue, too.”

The way his season went, perhaps it was fitting that Morrow suffered a ‘small fracture’ in his foot and missed two of the last three games of the regular season and then had to say ‘no’ to Team Canada’s invitation to join them for the World Championships beginning on May 7 in Germany.

“I’ve already been approached about it, I’m a little bit banged up, so I’m not going to compete this year,” said Morrow, who also competed for his country in the Worlds in 2001, ‘02, ‘04 and ‘05. “It’s been a long year and I’m a little bit banged up right now.”

Of course, Morrow’s experience with Team Canada in Vancouver was a major highlight, not just of this season, but his career. After beginning the tournament as one of Canada’s spare forwards, he got better as the tournament wore on, earning more and more ice time. He scored the game-winning goal in their quarterfinal triumph over Russia and scored another important goal in their semi-final win over Slovakia, ending the tournament with two goals and one assist, with a +3 plus/minus rating, in seven games.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Morrow said of the feeling of winning gold on home soil. “Any time you represent your country, you take pride in it. I’d done it at every level but the Olympics. To be able to go through the two weeks, the grind of a tournament like that, and to come away with gold with all the pressure and expectations, and to do it at home, in front of friends, family, it made it that much more special. It’s a dream come true.

“I got a little confidence from it, played a few different roles on that team and earned more ice time as the tournament went on.”

Unfortunately, the magic didn’t carry over for Morrow when the Stars resumed their season, as the team lost their first four and went 1-5-1 over their first seven out of the break. Morrow registered just two points (one goal, one assist) in those games before finally breaking out with that four-point effort against San Jose, but by then, the Stars had already fallen to the fringes of the playoff race.

“Probably the best I felt is when I came back,” said Morrow, the Stars’ first-round selection (25th overall) in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft. “Slowly, my confidence and energy, and coming off such a high maybe caught up to me a little bit. We came in, lost our first two or three at home, and the wind was out of our sail a little bit. You try to get motivated back up again, and for a team that didn’t win three in a row (all season), that was something we were lacking.”

With some of the changes the organization faces this off-season, more pressure and responsibility will fall to the 30-year-old Morrow to be the leader he’s shown he can be, especially during the Stars’ run to the 2008 Western Conference Finals.

As longtime stalwarts Mike Modano and Jere Lehtinen ponder retirement and goaltender Marty Turco leaves as a free agent, the support group for Morrow in the dressing room will undoubtedly undergo some adjustments.

“It’s been a difficult season that way because of the questions surrounding Mike Modano’s future, because of the questions surrounding Marty Turco’s future,” acknowledged Stars General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk. “It’s tough when you have barnacles like that, that are difficult situations - it’s hard to mesh it all together. But I think that Brenden is a quality person and a hard-working guy that has been a great captain here for many years. He’s going to need help, he’s going to need Brad Richards, he’s going to need all those guys, Stephane Robidas, Loui Eriksson, they’re quiet leaders, but Steve Ott is a guy to me, that will really help Brenden grab this team. 

“I think Brenden needs a lot of support. It’s not easy. And when you have a lot of the questions that are looming with our franchise about ownership and about lots of other things, you need a solid foundation. You need a culture in that locker room that is positive and hard-working and Brenden has that, he just needs help from other people.”

The imminent departure of Turco also means Morrow won’t have his best friend at his side for the first time since his rookie season.  

“It’s tough. My best friend, my neighbor, is probably not going to be back here,” Morrow said. “It’s tough, it sucks, but we’re professional, we know it’s a business, and he needs to do what’s best for him and his family. The Stars need to do what’s best for the organization. Those things are never easy, but change always happens.”

“We’ve been through a lot together,” Turco said of Morrow. “My whole time here has been with number 10 at my side and vice versa. And really, there isn’t one thing that either of us has gone through that the other doesn’t know intimately about. Our relationship has been started and built here in Dallas and it will last long after we’re done playing hockey.”

As Morrow looks forward, he believes the Stars are headed in the right direction and is determined not to be sitting on the sidelines again next spring when the playoffs begin. 

“We’re all disappointed. I don’t know if it’s completely sunk in yet,” Morrow said. “I think when you start seeing teams still playing on TV, that second wave comes and there’s more disappointment. It kind of feels a little surreal right now. It’s not something that we’re used to or want to get used to around here. There’s going to be some changes every year when you’re struggling, and it’s been a tough year on a lot of different guys, but we did get some good things with some young guys. Some guys went beyond expectations and played really well for us, and that’s something to be excited about. You can always be better, and that’s something that we’ll strive for next year.”

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