NHL is not a perfectly efficient market place. That’s to be expected, naturally – teams are not perfect evaluators of talent, conditions in various cities cause teams to feel they must overpay to attract unrestricted free agents, and players often see wide swings in performance from one season to the next for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, good players slip through the cracks and less-good players get rich, multi-year deals.
Even with that backdrop, it can be amazing to see a player like Brendan Morrison slip through the cracks.
Originally drafted by the New Jersey Devils in the second round of the 1993 Entry Draft, Morrison had a lengthy college apprenticeship and spent a year in the AHL before jumping to the big leagues. His time in New Jersey was short-lived; after 130 games the Devils sent him to Vancouver in a deal that brought back Alexander Mogilny. Morrison spent the heart of his career with the Canucks, centering stars Todd Bertuzzi and Markus Naslund, and for six seasons on either side of the lockout he recorded 50+ points each year while playing in all situations (including a key role on the penalty kill).
Despite his small size, Morrison was a picture of health for most of his time in Vancouver; for a time he was the NHL’s reigning iron man, thanks to playing in 542 consecutive games (534 of them in Vancouver). The 2007-08 season saw the end of that remarkable streak; Morrison hurt his wrist and then tore his ACL. He ended the season having played just 39 games, and in the summer signed with Anaheim. Morrison struggled to bounce back from injury, and so the Ducks placed him on the waiver wire, where he was snatched up by Dallas but not retained at the end of the season. He signed a bargain contract with Washington (one year, $1.5 million), and managed 42 points along with a plus-23 rating before a lacklustre playoff run (a run which wasn’t helped by a late-season leg injury); in the end the Capitals opted not to re-sign him.
The surprise, however, wasn’t that Washington didn’t want to re-sign Morrison; the surprise was that nobody wanted to sign Morrison. Although a superficial glance at his counting numbers wasn’t especially inspiring, Morrison had posted those without a heavy reliance on power play minutes, as he told the Province’s Tony Gallagher:
“When [Capitals’ general manager] George McPhee told me that they weren’t bringing me back, he said that I had done everything they had asked of me but that they wanted to make some other changes. I mean I think I had a pretty good year. I only had eight power play points. I was on the second unit but those guys stay out the whole two minutes every penalty anyway. My actual power play time was nothing.”
In fact, Morrison’s even-strength scoring had been exceptional; he had scored 2.08 PTS/60 at five-on-five, although admittedly that was in an offence-first role. Still, in the end he found himself in training camp with Vancouver, but without a contract: he was playing on a professional try-out deal. Eventually, the Canucks offered Morrison a two-way deal, and when he declined they released him from his try-out, and instead signed Peter Schaefer, who was released mid-season.
Morrison landed in Calgary just two days before the start of the NHL season. The Flames were desperate for help up the middle and signed him to a one-year, one-way deal worth $725,000. Once again, Morrison is racking up the points at even-strength (2.04 PTS/60, a number that puts him in the top-six in Calgary and would have done the same in Vancouver). He’s playing 2:00 per night on the penalty kill, a little more than that on the power play.
The possession and shot numbers haven’t been overly kind to him, but then again Morrison’s playing top-line minutes against top-line opposition, and doing so without an overly generous allotment of offensive zone starts. By almost any measure he’s having a successful season, and his recent knee injury is a blow to the Flames, though given how well he’s played relative to his salary they have no right to complain.
In Vancouver, a team that could have used a versatile fourth-line guy with the ability to move up the line-up as needed, the decision not to offer Morrison a one-way deal stands out as a rare mistake for Mike Gillis. At even $725,000, he’d be the 12th-most expensive forward on the roster. At least Vancouver isn’t alone in this; I remain surprised that there weren’t other teams in the league willing to offer a player like Morrison fourth-line money.