Defenseman Joseph Morrow, the Penguins’ first-round draft choice in June, took full advantage of those opportunities given to him in September.
And though Morrow was eventually returned to his junior team, the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League (WHL), the now 19-year-old defenseman turned heads playing with the Penguins in the preseason and even made a strong case to stay with the team when the season started.
“I didn’t expect any of this,” Morrow said in September. “The opportunities the coaches gave me on the power play and the penalty kill, and to have the amount of ice time I’ve been given, and to play with the players I’ve been playing with has been phenomenal.”
Scouts raved about the offensive-minded Morrow’s smooth skating ability along with his hard shot and that was all on full display during his four-game tenure with the Penguins. Bylsma was well aware of Morrow’s offensive abilities, but he was more impressed with the young defenseman’s poise.
“His confidence, for an 18-year-old kid, has been exceptional,” Bylsma said during training camp. “It’s kind of coming through as you see him play in games. He looks under control, he looks confident in his ability and we see the attributes that made him a high draft pick.”
Morrow, the 23rd overall selection, has notched 116 points in 193 games played at Portland, including 29 points through 28 games played this season. He was also one of 41 players invited to Team Canada’s national selection camp for the 2012 world junior championships.
The Penguins, with more than $16 million wrapped up in their top four defenseman—all signed through 2014-15—have a stockpile of blueliners and some questioned why the team used its first draft pick on another this season. But Penguins’ general manager Ray Shero believes a team can’t have too many good, young defensemen, especially one as highly-regarded as Morrow.
“A strength today is a weakness tomorrow in the organization,” Shero said.
The Edmonton, Alberta native comes from a strong hockey lineage. Morrow’s father Dave was drafted by the Vancouver Canucks in the 1977 NHL Entry Draft and his brother Josh was drafted by the Nashville Predators in 2002 when Shero was the assistant GM.
“I think it’s more of a positive than anything, coming from a hockey family,” Morrow said. “You have pretty good genetics behind you and you’re always around hockey.”
Morrow appeared in four exhibition games with the Penguins during the preseason and tied for third on the team with four points. He even scored a power play goal, taking a faceoff feed before ripping a blast from the point into the net.
But Morrow’s best game came against Detroit where the rookie showcased his highly-touted offensive abilities talked about when he was initially drafted.
“The game was a really good indication of this guy in an NHL game making plays,” Bylsma said. “You can see the skating and the shot and his ability to play out there. It was an impressive game from him, it was great to see, and he’s getting more chances as a result.”
One of Morrow’s biggest opportunities was the chance to play with Penguins’ defenseman Kris Letang, whose regular partner Brooks Orpik recovered from offseason hernia surgery during training camp. Morrow’s north-south offensive style mirrors that of Letang’s, who was an All-Star last season, and served as a mentor for the Penguins’ first-round draft pick.
“It was fantastic to be able to play with him,” Morrow said. “I probably wouldn’t have played as well without him. He guided me through, gave me tips, talked to me, and did everything he could to help me feel comfortable.
“I really appreciate it and couldn’t ask for a better defensive partner.”
The two figure to be regular fixtures on the Penguins’ blueline for years to come. Though Letang is quickly burgeoning into one of the NHL’s top defenseman, the rapidly-developing Morrow likely won’t be far behind.