Pittsburgh is widely considered to have the deepest and most-talented group of defensive prospects in hockey. Handicapping who will emerge as the best of the bunch will be tough until the youngest of them have gained more playing experience. However, no Penguins D prospect has made a name for himself quite as quickly as Joe Morrow did last fall.
GM Ray Shero has minted the process of drafting puck-moving defensemen year-in and year-out and turning them into blue-line regulars or trading them for established NHL forwards. In three of the last four seasons, Shero has taken a defenseman with his first pick and has collected four first-round defensemen in total, Morrow being one of those four.
Simon Despres (2009), Olli Maatta (2012) and Derrick Pouliot (2012) all have the pedigrees to be top-four NHL defensemen. Despite the talent around him (which also includes former second-rounders Scott Harrington, Brian Dumoulin and Philip Samuelsson), Morrow's flashes of brilliance suggest he'll be the eventual inheritor to Kris Letang's role as the team's top blue-liner.
Morrow was taken in the first round of the 2011 NHL Draft (23rd overall) after playing 3 seasons with the Portland Winterhawks (WHL). His selection was seen as a bit of a surprise, if not a misfire. Pittsburgh entered the draft coming off a playoff series loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in which the club scored just one power play goal on 34 chances and 14 goals in seven games. Offense was clearly an area of need.
However, Shero's draft strategy has been to acquire value across all levels while not jumping to address immediate needs at the NHL level with talent that may be 3-4 years from an NHL debut—forgetting for a moment talents like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, it's not often a player drafted during the summer is able to plug holes in the NHL lineup just a few months later.
Given Pittsburgh's league-best offense and playoffs-worst GAA this April, drafting players like Morrow and Despres must now appear brilliant.
Morrow was drafted as an 18 year old with three years of WHL experience. In his final season before being drafted, Morrow posted 49 points (9-40) in 60 games with the Winterhawks as well as 19 points (6-13) in 20 playoff games, and earned individual accolades by being named to the CHL Home Hardware Top Prospects Game (Hockey's Future).
Following a return to juniors as a signed Penguins product, Morrow played a fourth WHL season in 2011-12, collecting 17 goals and 47 assists (64 points) in 62 games—the first time in his WHL career he finished as a point-per-game player (as a defenseman). He then added 17 points in 22 postseason games with Portland.
Morrow was one of 23 Penguins players assigned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL in the days preceding the September 15 NHL lockout. The WBS Penguins are scheduled to begin their season on October 13.
Morrow was a standout at last year's training camp, appearing in all 6 preseason games as a junior player. His play so impressed the organization that he was one of the final skaters to be cut from the NHL roster, and whispers of a 9-game junior tryout contract (like the one Jordan Staal received in 2006-07) turned into a legitimate conversation.
Hockey's Future ranks Morrow just below former defensive partner Derrick Pouliot in the Penguins prospect rankings, though greater experience on the ice has given scouts a more complete look at Morrow's potential.
Playing with poise and maturity far beyond his years, Morrow possesses the ability to to retrieve the puck from his own zone and start the play up ice. His puck-distribution ability is top-notch and he has a hard and heavy shot that typically hits the net. He also owns a high hockey IQ and does an excellent job of keeping his head up when moving the puck up ice and carrying it along the blue line.
Watching Morrow in training camp and during those preseason games, it was clear to see that he possessed uncanny poise with the puck, even in the mistake-prone situation of being chased by a forechecker near his own net. Those intangibles (coupled with the more measurable attribute of a blue line slap shot missing from the Penguins organization since Sergei Gonchar left) are what attracted the Penguins to Morrow in the first place, and are part of what has vaulted him ahead of his peers in the organizational depth chart.
Morrow was assigned to the AHL this month and likely would have been with or without a lockout. However, it seems like the current work stoppage will be more than enough to erase a second pro training camp for the young defenseman, where he made a name for himself last September and October.
Barring numerous injuries and the highly unlikely event of a lockout that won't strike the pending season from the books, Morrow won't get a long look at the NHL roster this season. However, assuming the NHL is indeed lost to lockout (as, let's face it, it probably will be), Morrow is going to be one of the more seasoned defensive prospects currently signed to a deal beyond 2012-13.
Morrow's talent suggests he could step into a NHL role at some point this season. The climate of league politics means he and Paul Martin might be the last two defensemen still signed to contracts once hockey finally resumes.