For 77 days, restricted free agent Josh Morrissey remained unsigned. His lack of a contract saw him miss the opening of training camp, skip on-ice testing and remain away from his teammates through the first weekend of drills. But on the eve of the Winnipeg Jets’ first pre-season tilt, a meeting with the division rival Minnesota Wild, Morrissey has put pen to paper on a two-year deal that put an end to the months-long contract stalemate.
That Morrissey has inked what is effectively a bridge deal — one that carries a $3.15-million cap hit — ahead of the regular season and concluded his minor holdout should come as no surprise. The 23-year-old blueliner had already been in Winnipeg ahead of training camp, took part in informal skates with a select group of teammates and was confident that a deal would get done in short order once players began reporting. Morrissey had made clear that he wasn’t about to be missing any action of importance. His new pact ensures as much, too.
Securing Morrissey’s spot on the roster is no small bit of business for Winnipeg, either. While he doesn’t carry the name recognition of a Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba or Tyler Myers outside of Manitoba, Morrissey’s climb up the Jets’ depth chart has been rapid. He’s vaulted himself into a top-four spot on the backend with honest potential to be a consistent and steady top-pairing blueliner at whatever moment Winnipeg bench boss Paul Maurice wants to pull the trigger.
It’s the versatility in Morrissey’s game that comes with so much promise. Drafted in the first round in 2013 in part due to his offensive acumen, he’s instead made his mark on the Jets’ lineup with his steady defensive play and heart-and-soul play. Case in point, Morrissey, who is by no means the biggest, baddest blueliner on Winnipeg’s roster and seems almost generously listed as a 6-footer, led the team with 168 blocked shots last season and finished only eight hits behind ‘Big Buff’. This all came during a career-best offensive campaign, too, as Morrissey notched a career high seven goals and 26 points while skating nearly 20:30 per game.
But despite his offensive highs, there remains a well of untapped offense with Morrissey, particularly considering the former major junior blueline dynamo, who once scored 28 goals and 73 points in 59 games in the Western League, hasn’t sniffed anything that even resembles consistent power play time. He averaged 20 seconds per game with the man advantage last season, which is considerably less than that of Byfuglien, Myers and Trouba. And there’s ample evidence of more offensive upside in Morrissey’s rate of scoring. Morrissey ranked 35th among all blueliners to skate at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5 last season with 1.01 points per 60 minutes. For the sake of comparison, that’s one-hundredth of a point lower than Drew Doughty’s rate, while notables such as P.K. Subban, Shayne Gostisbehere and Morgan Rielly, among others, out-produced Morrissey at five-a-side by less than one-tenth of a point per 60 minutes.
Given his already inarguable effectiveness in his own zone, if Morrissey can harness more of his offensive ability, or if Winnipeg finds a better way to extract that side of his game, there’s every opportunity for the new contract to become a steal in short order. And while the Jets assuredly would have loved to be able to lock up Morrissey to long-term, there are benefits in signing him short term, even if it does come with the distinct possibility that the rearguard will command a big-money raise in the not-too-distant future.
Primarily, the benefit exists in managing the cap at a time when Winnipeg is about to enter its toughest financial test since the relocation north of the border. A new contract was taken care of for Blake Wheeler earlier this summer, but with that pact signed, Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and Co. need to look toward the future. Next off-season, if not sooner, the Jets will need to hand out or consider contracts for unrestricted free agents Myers, Ben Chiarot and Brandon Tanev, as well as come to terms with RFAs-to-be Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Jacob Trouba, Andrew Copp and Joe Morrow. That Morrissey has signed on for less than expected, though, means Winnipeg heads into next summer with nearly $24-million in projected cap space, according to CapFriendly.
You can go ahead now and strike out about half of that money on deals for Laine and Connor. Myers, too, will be asking for a raise on the $5.5 million he's set to earn this season. Copp, Morrow, Chiarot and Tanev won't break the bank, but the potential for team success could result in pay hikes for each, if the Jets choose to retain the services of all four. The biggest question mark then becomes Trouba, whose consecutive contentious negotiations seem to suggest his tenure in Winnipeg is on borrowed time. That doesn't mean the Jets can't make the money work to keep him around, though, especially if there's consideration given to a potential increase in the spending limit. It will take some creativity and maybe a casualty here or there, but Winnipeg should be able to make the money work.
Beyond that, though, Morrissey’s team-friendly cap hit can bring with it some immediate benefits. With upwards of $7 million in projected space for the coming campaign, a Stanley Cup-contending Jets team has the ability to add and patch holes if the opportunity presents itself. The championship window is wide-open for Winnipeg with its young group, and come the deadline, another big-ticket acquisition could make all the difference. And given the effectiveness of Paul Stastny after he landed with the Jets last season, it’s safe to say the Jets will be kicking the tires on top-tier talent come the deadline in an effort to get the most out of a promising group.
But true as all that may be, the savings on Morrissey now comes with a potentially increased price later. From the natural progression he’ll make as a defender to the possibility for consistently rising point totals, Morrissey could very well follow the same blueprint as Nashville Predators standout Ryan Ellis, who was on a sweetheart deal — albeit a five-year pact, not a two-year bridge deal — before earning a big payday this past summer. Not that the Jets would be complaining, mind you. If Morrissey can mirror Ellis’ development and become a blueliner on the periphery of Norris Trophy candidacy, Winnipeg will be more than happy to pay up and avoid the holdout come the 2020-21 off-season.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.