The Penguins saw plenty to like in 18-year-old Joe Morrow when they made him their first-round selection, 23rd overall, at the NHL Entry Draft in June. The Edmonton, Alberta, native had good genetics, coming from a hockey family with two prior NHL draft picks in his father, Dan, and brother, Josh. At 6-foot-0 and 197 pounds, he had good size, not to mention a powerful shot and smooth skating ability. And he boasted plenty of offensive upside, racking up 49 points (9G, 40A) in 60 games for the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks last year.
“We think he’s going to be a top-four defenseman,” said Randy Sexton, Pittsburgh’s assistant director of amateur scouting. “He’s got good size. He’s a powerful player, a powerful skater. He already possesses an NHL shot. He will fit well with the style of play that we want to play.”
Not even the club that thought so highly of Morrow, however, expected him to fit so well with its system quite so soon. In his first two preseason games, Morrow has registered three points (1G, 2A), seen time on both special teams and skated alongside some of the premier players in the game. And not once has he looked out of place at the NHL level.
“I didn’t have any nerves coming into this game,” Morrow said after his first preseason contest. “I was too excited to play with this caliber of people … too excited to be nervous. I’ve never had that much fun playing hockey before.”
Wednesday against the Detroit Red Wings, he used his skating ability to break out of the Penguins’ end and send a perfectly executed pass onto the stick of Arron Asham, setting up the forward for a breakaway attempt. “He made a great play that a lot of NHL players don’t make,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “A lot of positives from his game. He looked real comfortable out there, and that was against the best competition he’s seen.”
Saturday, with the Penguins hosting the Minnesota Wild, Morrow took a feed from defensive partner Kris Letang at the point and blasted his first NHL goal past netminder Niklas Backstrom.
“We’ve heard about and talked about his shot, and we saw that tonight,” Bylsma said. “We heard about his skating ability, and that’s been on display the two games he played.
“I think the one [surprising] thing – maybe the quality of the person and the confidence, for an 18-year-old, has been exceptional, and it’s coming through when you see him play games. He looks under control, he looks confident in his ability, and we see the attributes that made him a high draft pick. He’s been outstanding, and he’s been pretty calm and collected and confident under the fire of two exhibition games.”
That poise has helped Morrow remain with the Penguins through two rounds of training camp roster cuts so far, outlasting players like Simon Despres, the highly touted, 20-year-old defenseman who stuck with the club until the last round of cuts last year.
“I’m expecting to wake up tomorrow morning and for this all to be a dream for me. I think I’m awake right now; I’ve pinched myself a couple times,” Morrow said. “To have the opportunity the coach has given me on the power play and penalty kill, and to have the amount of ice time I’ve been given and play with the players I’ve been playing with, has been phenomenal. The experience is unbelievable.”
The Penguins now head on the road for three games to close out their preseason schedule. Morrow’s age and position work against any dreams he might have of stepping into the NHL on a permanent basis anytime soon – organizations typically prefer to develop young defensemen more slowly than forwards – but, for now, he’s having the time of his life. “I’m grateful for every day I spend here … wouldn’t trade it for anything,” he told the Penguins’ official website.
And, although his first two showings against NHL competition have been impressive, Morrow is anything but satisfied, continuing to raise his own expectations.
“There’s always a next step,” he said. “Mistakes were made tonight by me and, hopefully, I can have a couple perfect games in the future.”
It’s a future that Morrow has given himself – and Penguins fans – reason to look forward to.