When the season began, Brendan Morrison was slotted as the Washington Capitals’ No. 2 center, but coach Bruce Boudreau needed some time to warm up to his new pivot.
In about one-quarter of the season after signing with the Caps as a free agent, the 34-year-old Morrison has become one of the team’s most valuable players. His ice time has continued to rise as he gains more responsibility, and he’s producing at levels unseen since his best years in Vancouver.
“When we were talking about him this summer, I know we’ve always liked him as a player,” general manager George McPhee said. “The question this summer was, ‘Is he done as a player? Has Father Time caught up with him, or have the injuries affected his performance?’
“Knowing that [our scouts] liked him and knowing at least in talking to him that it was going to be all about training, we thought it was a move that could really work out well for us if things went right.”
Morrison is fifth on the team in goals, sixth in points and third in plus-minus rating. More important, he has been able to display his versatility as Boudreau has placed more trust in him and the team’s injury situation has worsened.
When the season began, Morrison was not in the group of guys counted on to kill penalties, and he received sparse time on the power play. His role on the PK has increased; he logged a season-high 1:54 killing penalties Tuesday night against the Rangers.
“He’s earned it,” Boudreau said. “I didn’t have him killing penalties the first seven or eight games, then I’d kill him one shift a game and now he’s earned more. On the power play, he’s earned more time. The responsibility in his own zone - he’s a very smart hockey player.”
Added Morrison: “I think we’ve had some injury problems and that has led to more ice time the past few games, but I think my play has dictated it some too. I don’t think Bruce knew a lot about me, being out West. It is one of those things when you play out West for most of your career, guys in the East don’t ever see you.”
Losing Alex Ovechkin was expected to damage Washington’s potent power play, but Morrison stepped into his role on the point and the Caps didn’t miss a beat. They went 6-for-14 in the six games Ovechkin missed, and Morrison retained the role Tuesday even when No. 8 returned to the lineup.
“Well, he’s got such a bomb from the point on the power play,” Brooks Laich said, chuckling. “He’s a very heady player who is smart with the puck. I think his minutes are going to continue to increase for us.”
Should Morrison continue his strong start, he will continue to look like one of the best free agent bargains from this past offseason. The Caps signed him to a one-year, $1.5 million contract, and he’s on pace for 63 points, which would be his best year since 2002-03.
McPhee said it could be a mutually beneficial relationship when the team signed Morrison, because if the forward did resurrect his career after scoring only 56 points in the past two years combined, then he could re-enter the marketplace looking for a heftier contract.
Now, it certainly appears that could happen - if the Caps don’t make a play to lock him up before June 1.
“I’m having fun again, and that is a big thing - just enjoying coming to the rink every single day,” Morrison said. “I think the guys on the team are great, and we have a real tight group here. The coaches have been great, and really from the top down I’ve been so impressed with the organization.
“If you’re asking me right now, then yeah I want to [re-sign here], but a lot can happen, and I know they have a lot of guys to sign. That stuff has a way of working itself out, so I’m not worried about it.”