Skilled puck moving defensemen are more in demand than ever, which is an interesting paradigm shift, because at one time, huge, nasty defenders were coveted during the clutch-and-grab era of the NHL given their ability to neutralize smaller offensive players.
These days, it's all about the mobile passers who can stretch defenses and start the quick attack from their own end. The best NHL teams have a fast and fluid transition game. Those who don't have that kind of dynamic in their blue line corps have to rely on their forwards to do more individual work to beat opposing defenses.
One such player who is not generally ranked as a solid first-round selection is Portland Winterhawk Joe Morrow.
The 34th-ranked player in the THN Draft Preview, Red Line had Morrow 36th in their April issue. The way we hear it, though, Morrow could very well be picked inside the top-20. Why? Well, at 6-1, 200 pounds, he's got size and natural strength. His skating improved considerably from where it was a year ago, as did his footwork, and Morrow has gotten much more involved in jumping up into the play than he did previously.
With good vision and the right touch on the puck, he's a pretty strong all-around package in that he's not a high-end puck-mover nor is he a dominant defenseman, but is a nice blend between both.
We talked to one NHL scout out west who lamented the fact that the cat is out of the bag on Morrow. "I saw him last year and was hoping he might be a guy we could steal later on, but I don't see it after the season he had," the scout said. "When you break it down, his skill level probably isn't quite what it should be if you're taking a guy in the first 15 to 20 picks, but in the bigger picture of what he brings to a team, I think he'll go there."
Morrow has a big booming shot, but the scout said that the Albertan sometimes falls a little too in love with his point drive and needs to get quicker at getting it off and work on switching things up. "He tends to get a little static or stationary at times," the scout said. "And with that big windup, the guys who are willing to get in front of it have the time to react and get into the shooting lane. It is a real cannon, though. When he gets it on net, it's heavy and hard to stop."
Central Scouting is on the right track; they ranked Morrow 12th in their final list, which was up four spots from his mid-term ranking of 16. That places him squarely in the middle of the first round.
But, if all of Adam Larsson, Dougie Hamilton, Ryan Murphy and Nathan Beaulieu are off the board in the first 10-11 picks, where does that leave Morrow?
"I like him better than Duncan Siemens to be honest," the scout said. "Siemens gets a lot of his points from secondary assists and skating with Stef Elliott. I don't see the same kind of vision or creativity from him that I do from Morrow. I know this will come as a surprise to a lot of people, but I think Siemens is overrated when people are talking top-10 for him. He's going to be a solid middle-pairing guy, but if you want real upside from the defense position, I have Morrow ranked a little higher. Yes, he plays on a good team in Portland as well, but Morrow starts the breakout and is pretty good with puck distribution."
It may entirely come down to a pick your flavor proposition between Siemens and Morrow on June 24, but at B2011DW, we wouldn't at all be surprised to see the two go within just a few picks within one another.
Another thing working in Morrow's favor is the deep run his Winterhawks team made this spring. Siemens on the other hand, got bounced in the second round and by several accounts, did not acquit himself very well.
"Siemens got exposed a bit both in the win over Prince Albert, but especially against Kootenay," said an NHL director of amateur scouting recently. "When his team needed him to step up his game, he made a lot of mistakes and didn't look settled the way he did in the regular season. That isn't going to crush him at the draft, but it is something teams are going to talk about."
Morrow's team is in the WHL championship and down 2 games to 1 to the Kootenay Ice. Morrow's production has been outstanding in the postseason, with six goals and 18 points in 19 games. That kind of impression will be fresh in teams' minds when they get together to hammer out their rankings.
"I think you'll see a run on defensemen who have that all-important puck moving skill," said another NHL scout from the Eastern Conference recently. "Teams who wait too long to grab one find themselves shut out on draft day. A kid like Morrow is probably going to hear his name called sooner than most people think because of that reason."
In any case, it makes for an interesting plot line to watch for in Minnesota.