When Joe Morrow was traded to the Dallas Stars back in March, he tweeted that he should fit in well in Texas. He was, after all, a mechanical bull riding champion.
“There was a mechanical bull riding contest after we (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins) played at Manchester one night. I took the title home with me,” Morrow said with a laugh. “It’s a lot harder than it looks.”
The Stars likely didn’t have a clue about Morrow’s mechanical bull riding prowess. What they liked was his skill set, which includes his ability to skate, move the puck and shoot.
“Unbelievably smooth, almost effortless the way he can skate and pass the puck. He’s highly-skilled,” said Texas Stars assistant coach Doug Lidster. “I think the playoffs have started to bring out the best in him, started to raise his intensity level a little bit.”
The 20-year-old Morrow played one of his best games since joining the Texas Stars in Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Oklahoma City Barons over the weekend. He had four shots on goal and scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal, roofing a shot from the point with Texas on the power play to put the Stars up 2-0 in the second period. The Stars went on to win, 2-1, to even the series at one game apiece.
“The coaches are always telling me to shoot the puck, so I shot the puck,” said Morrow. “That was one of those seeing-eye shots that made its way into the net.”
The Stars acquired Morrow, a left shot who is listed at 6-1, 204 pounds, on March 24 in the deal that sent Brenden Morrow to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Joe Morrow was at a movie theater when he found out about the trade and he didn’t hear about it from an official source. He heard about it the modern way, which is from people who saw reports of the trade on the internet.
“My phone started blowing up more than usual,” he said. “The internet is faster than someone can call you nowadays.”
And Morrow, Pittsburgh’s first round pick (23rd overall) in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, was on his way to Texas, where he would join Dallas’ AHL affiliate in Cedar Park after starting the season with the Penguins’ top minor league team in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
“I saw it as a new opportunity,” Morrow said.
That new opportunity came in his first season of professional hockey. He turned pro after a stellar career with the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League. In the 2011 WHL playoffs, he registered 20 points (6 goals, 14 assists) in 21 games, ranking second among defensemen in playoff scoring and helping lead Portland to the WHL finals.
That summer, the Penguins selected him 23rd overall in the 2011 draft and he had a strong showing at Pittsburgh’s training camp. But it was back to junior hockey for more seasoning, and he put impressive numbers.
In 2011-12, he ranked second among all WHL defensemen in regular season scoring with 64 points (17 goals, 47 assists) and was named a WHL First-Team All-Star. He tied for the lead in defensemen scoring in the 2012 playoffs, registering 17 points (4 goals, 13 assists) in 22 games as the Winterhawks made it to the WHL finals again.
His first year of pro hockey has been one of adjustment, especially on the defensive side of things. When he was with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, there were some healthy scratches the first half of the season as the coaching staff worked to get his defensive game into shape.
“It was up and down for me,” Morrow said. “The first half of the season was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be and I had to adjust pretty quickly, but after that halfway point something clicked and I figured it out. The confidence came along with that, along with many other things in the D zone and I felt comfortable.”
And those ups and downs with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton paid dividends and the move to Texas has helped him progress even more.
“I feel [the Penguins] molded me into a two-way defenseman that can be out there in the last couple minutes of a game and can be trusted in the defensive zone. They did a very good job,” Morrow said. “Coming here, they’ve added on to it. I spend a lot of time here watching video and still nitpicking at my game to make it better and better each day. I feel extremely comfortable in the D zone now in any situation. It’s come a long way for sure.”
Lidster said Morrow’s lessons in the defensive zone are part of being a young player moving into the professional ranks.
“They all have to work on parts of their game and that’s an area he clearly has to improve on,” Lidster said. “Every player has strengths and weaknesses, and his strength is when he has the puck or when the team has the puck, so he has to make sure that he brings that.
“You are not going to play mistake-free hockey and the more dynamic he is when he has the puck or when we have the puck, that will allow him to play a little bit more when he wouldn’t normally be out there because of the defensive liabilities that he is working on.”
Morrow has played mostly with veteran AHL defenseman Maxime Fortunus, who has provided some good guidance. So has Lidster, the former NHL blueliner who handles the Texas defensemen.
“He’s very vocal. Every shift you come off the ice, he tells you what you did good, what you did bad,” Morrow said of Lidster. “It’s very important having a guy like that behind you to help you further yourself in your career.”
Morrow picked up 4 points (1 goal, 3 assists) and a plus-3 rating in 9 regular season games with Texas. He has 2 points (1 goal, 1 assist) and an even-rating in 6 playoff games, and now feels comfortable with how Texas plays and how he fits into what the Stars do.
“It’s been really good,” Morrow said. “They have a lot of leniency towards some people’s games and kind of let them play their own game around a certain system that allows you to do that. It’s been a good adjustment. It’s been a lot of fun so far. The team is playing well and it’s fun to be in the playoffs here.”
The native of Alberta has enjoyed his time in the Cedar Park area since the trade.
“So far, it’s been fantastic,” he said. “The sun and there are a lot of things to do around here. It keeps things entertaining. Once in a while, you need to get hockey off your mind when you are playing this much and this is a nice city to go out and have a nice day to yourself, enjoy the sun and all the green. It’s been fantastic. I don’t have enough good things to say about it.”
The trade to the Dallas organization and the move to Texas have been two significant events in what has been an eventful first pro season for the young defenseman. There have been some ups and downs and a lot of lessons learned. Like that mechanical bull ride in Manchester, it was harder than he thought it was going to be. And that’s not such a bad thing.
“In the long run, it definitely makes you a tougher person,” Morrow said. “It shows you that nothing comes easy. Once you can figure that out, put your whole heart into everything it moves pretty quickly and I’d like to keep progressing as I go on.”
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