Rookie blueliner will see action in first round
Keith McCambridge isn’t about to let the cat out of the bag just yet regarding his lineup tonight for the St. John’s IceCaps’ first game of the Calder Cup playoffs, but don’t be surprised if the just-turned-19 defence prospect Josh Morrissey is in the lineup.
“Yes, without a doubt … without a doubt,” McCambridge replied when asked if he’d have no problem starting Morrissey against the Albany Devils tonight (8:30 p.m. NL time, 930AM) at the Times Union Centre in their first-round American Hockey League playoff series.
“I would say in the last three games, when I see Josh Morrissey move pucks and read where the next decision has to be on the ice, you can see a real strong skill set coming out of him.
“We have him quarterbacking one of the power play units, and that wasn’t handed to him. He earned that.
“I’m starting to see some real quality reads he’s making on the ice, see some real high end skill plays he’s able to execute on the ice.”
Morrissey was the Winnipeg Jets’ first round draft pick last June, 13th overall, and just finished his junior season in Prince Albert of the Western league, where he captained the Raiders.
He was the Eastern Conference’s top defenceman, and a finalist for the WHL’s top D-man award.
Throughout the 14-year history of the St. John’s Maple Leafs, there were very few players like Morrissey who made the jump to the AHL and the Calder Cup playoffs right after their junior season ended.
A couple who come to mind — Drake Berehowsky and Brandon Convery — were first-round picks, like Morrissey.
McCambridge prefers to draw comparison to someone he was familiar with. Toiling with the AHL’s Saint John Flames, McCambridge watched Calgary’s 13th overall pick in 1996, Derek Morris, join the AHL Flames for seven regular season games and five post-season contests after his junior season was done in Regina.
Morris has gone on to enjoy an 1,100-game NHL career.
“I’ve thought about this a little before,” McCambridge said, “because of the similarity in the two players, in terms of where they are as young guys. Derek Morris was a big piece in Saint John.
“When you add a guy a like Josh Morrissey, and look at what he did in junior, you observe him in the first couple of practices and in games and we feel confident in him. Just as importantly, his teammates do as well. He’s gained their trust.”
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Morrissey started the past eight games for the IceCaps, picking up one assist. Despite his age, he’s already one of the best skaters on the team — a “beautiful skater,” McCambridge says — and runs one of the St. John’s power play units.
“But I’m always very cautious. He just turned 19. He’s a young defenceman and there’s lots of time there to grow,” the coach said.
“The first couple of games, he was nervous, and that was to be expected. He’s really settled in the last three games and has really been a nice addition for us.
“He’s not a player taking minutes based on what he represents in the organization, but a player who’s helped our back end.”
One of Morrissey’s strengths, in addition to covering the ice, is his ability to read the play. That shouldn’t be a surprise, given the fact he’s no dummy. He was the Canadian Hockey League’s scholastic player of the year last year.
“No doubt, I was a bit nervous at first (coming into the AHL),” he said. “I’m playing with guys from 16- to 20-years-old in junior, and now I’m playing with men, some of whom have families.
“You didn’t know what to expect, I guess, but the guys have been supportive and the coaches have given me a chance to play and I’m enjoying my transition.
“Like Keith was saying, they’ve had a lot of confidence in me and having the opportunity to play and make mistakes and still go back on the ice and learn from them has been invaluable.”
It’s been an eventful 2013-14 for Morrissey. It started with the draft, his first training camp, an NHL exhibition game with the Jets, a spot on Canada’s world junior team and now the post-season in the American Hockey League.
“It’s been pretty cool,” he said. “There’s been a lot of hockey, but it’s been a lot of fun, too.”
Chances are, there will be more hockey. And Morrissey won’t be a spectator.