By Matt Popchock
I can still remember sitting in our offices with 93.7 The Fan weekend host Tab Douglas and scratching my head in unison.
Why would a team desperate for offense, particularly on the wings, choose a defenseman with the 23rd overall pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, especially with Pine-Richland wunderkind Brandon Saad still stuck in his Saginaw Spirit garb, and so many other promising forwards clinging to their cell phones?
It was a need not effectively addressed last July, nor this past February, and as an unusually difficult season wound down, it was an increasingly glaring weakness.
Not even the farmhands who helped salvage the 2010-11 NHL regular season and made the Baby Pens the top outfit in the AHL during its regular campaign could help the Big Penguins march past the opening round of the playoffs.
It was incessantly frustrating to watch the Crosby- and Malkin-less Penguins try to milk offense without their bell cows last spring. How could they pass up the opportunity to slate their own thirst for goals?
What was Ray Shero thinking? we wondered aloud.
That's not a rhetorical question either of us ask often. I can't speak for Tab, but I assure you I won't ask it again anytime soon, because Joe Morrow has answered it.
To me, the most impressive player from a thoroughly impressive preseason that saw the Pens win five of six games was not born-again phenom Evgeni Malkin, nor Marc-Andre Fleury, who looks ready to challenge for the Vezina Trophy, nor Tyler Kennedy, who continues stepping up to the high bar he set during last season's very trying stretch run.
It was Morrow, a lean, 18-year-old Edmonton product who I expected would have a terrible time proving himself with fellow Canadian blue-liner Simon Despres on the rise, and the general organizational depth at his position. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Predictably, he did not survive the blade of Shero's ax on Monday, but he can resume skating for the WHL's Portland Winterhawks, his junior club, with his head held high. Even if he doesn't don the black and gold till the Penguins' next training camp, he has made a fine first impression on his future teammates.
You don't need to remind Pittsburghers how meaningless preseason play can be in any sport--Steeler fans are receiving that harsh reminder even as we speak--but what Morrow did the past couple weeks should not go unnoticed. Despite coming into a classic little-Penguin-in-a-big-pond situation, Morrow seemed undaunted the moment he set foot on CONSOL Energy Center ice for the exhibition opener against Detroit.
Throughout these past six games, he has skated fluidly, moved the puck confidently, and played as sound positional hockey as any of his fellow defensemen.
By the way, did I mention he scored a power play goal?
Don't adjust the font settings on your Internet browser. You read that correctly.
The Penguins got a power play goal by shooting from the point...and sure enough, it came from someone who had all of four-plus periods of NHL experience.
Morrow blasted one by Niklas Backstrom Sept. 24 to strike up a special teams parade the likes of which the Pens hadn't seen since Sid was healthy, and propel the Penguins to a 4-1 win over the visiting Minnesota Wild. He would later add an assist and earn No. 2 star honors in front of 18,000 exuberant kids, many of whom weren't much younger than he.
He ended the 2011-12 preseason with four points and six shots on goal in four games, not to mention a plus-1 rating that still doesn't do justice to how well he played, all things considered.
The fact that the general manager of a team that already boasts Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang, Paul Martin, and the ever-intimidating Deryk Engelland, a team that was already one of the least scored-upon in the NHL, a team already with one of the top junior defensemen in hockey on the cusp of launching his own pro career, did not rule out Morrow making the team prior to the end of his first training camp should speak volumes...about both men.
Had Orpik not been ready to return for opening night in the aftermath of sports hernia surgery, one of those precious Oct. 6 roster spots might have been Morrow's.
With the exception of that unenviable place between the pipes, defense might be the toughest position to master at the NHL level. Another year of junior hockey will do nothing but good for Morrow in the long run. But he seems more NHL-ready than not, and that bodes well for this franchise in more ways than one.
Not only have the Penguins added strength to a present position of strength, but in the event they end up scraping the bottom of the silo for goals in the future, they have left themselves able to deal from that position of strength to address that weakness.
For example, rumors were swirling last season that the Pens weren't happy with newcomer Paul Martin's offensive output. If, at some point, they decide to deal Martin or one of their young defensemen for offensive help, they know they have young, competent talent that can step in while the other D-men climb a notch on the depth chart.
Or, if, heaven forbid, Orpik's recovery does not go as smoothly as hoped, the Penguins know they have someone who is just a phone call--okay, a phone call, and a really expensive plane ticket--away.
Ray, you magnificent you-know-what, you've done it again.
Be sure to keep visiting 937thefan.com, including Casey Shea's "Shea-ved Ice" blog, and tune into SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan for continuing coverage of the Penguins as they get set to drop the puck on the 2011-12 regular season.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)
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