Sunday, August 19, 2012

One To Watch: Pittsburgh Penguins

Jay Heinbuck pulled a fast one on me. The Director of Amateur Scouting for the Pittsburgh Penguins was a guest on TPS in the weeks leading up to the 2012 NHL Draft and I made the mistake of believing his version of the Pens' strategy. 

According to the Heinbuck the Pens were deep with prospects on the blueline so probably shouldn't be expected to take any early in the draft. Then on draft day Pittsburgh acquires Carolina's 8th overall pick and selects Derrick Pouliot from Portland and then uses their own pick later in the same round on Olli Maatta from London - two defencemen. 

Lesson learned.

Problem was that it was an easy story to believe, Pittsburgh really does have a lot of quality on the back end. That list includes Simon Despres, Scott Harrington, Harrison Ruopp and Brian Dumoulin who they also added from the Hurricanes. 

The team is deep up front too starting with Beau Bennett, my initial pick for this series, who is coming off of injury plagued seasons at Denver but is expected to be an excellent pro. 

I like the goalie situation for the Penguins too with Brad Thiessen, Marty Murray and now Jeff Zatkoff as well. 

But the player who stands out to me is someone I recently got to know a bit better as he guested on The Pipeline Show just yesterday. He's arguably Pittsburgh's top prospect and he's headed for an uncertain pro debut this year.

Photo: WHL

Joe Morrow (D)

Portland Winterhawks
6'1, 204 lbs
Drafted 23rd Overall in 2011

The high scoring talents of defenceman Joe Morrow are likely not going to be seen in the WHL anymore and 21 teams in the league are pretty happy about that. Morrow has been part of Portland's powerful offensive attack for the past four years, well three really because in his rookie season the 'Hawks only won 19 games. 

Morrow, originally from a farm just outside of the Edmonton bedroom community of Sherwood Park, was Portland's 2nd round pick back in 2007 and is one of the big pieces that helped turn the franchise around. Along with Portland standouts like Ty Rattie, Ryan Johansson, Oliver Gabriel, Brad Ross, Brendan Leipsic and Sven Bartschi, Morrow helped Portland regain respectability in the league after years of bottom feeding. 

Photo: Bryan Heim
The 6'1 blueliner is blessed with tremendous wheels and puckhandling skills that let him rush the puck better than most in the league. When he's on his game, Morrow can set the pace of contest. 

The Winterhawks have been WHL Western Conference champions for the past two seasons but fell short in the league finals. I asked Morrow if he'll be able to look back at his WHL career and see the successes or whether not winning in all with cloud his memories. 
"Absolutely," he said, "Making it to the final two years in a row, losing is no fun but the whole... changing that organization around from being one of the worst to one of the best is huge. To do that in four years is quite the feat and I'll look back at that as a success every day of my life. Getting drafted through that organization, I smile every time I think of that, it was a lot of fun."
Photo: Justin Berl via Twitter
Aside from his on ice abilities, Morrow is also know for his hair or, as one emailer to the show called it, his "flow". Penguin fans shouldn't expect to see what Portland faithful did though; Morrow arrive at the radio station with much shorter hair perhaps the new look he'll take with him to the pro ranks. 

Morrow says he's been tailoring his work outs this summer increase his strength with adding bulk, he's actually trying to get leaner before he reports to Pittsburgh. 

Last month I had three NHL scouts join me in studio, one was Wayne Meyer of the Penguins who mentioned that the organization really likes their defencemen to be mobile puck movers and Morrow fits that description well. 

Morrow has amassed 144 points in his last 3 WHL campaigns, 185 games played in that time span, so he's no stranger to a score sheet. At the next level he'll obviously have to fine tune his defensive game but its not every player who has the advantage of practicing against Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin.

Photo: Andy Devlin
 Last year Morrow was one of the last players released from Pittsburgh's training camp. I asked him how comfortable and how close he felt he was last September to making the NHL roster.
"I was very comfortable and confident too about everything and I did feel close," Morrow said, "The way I was playing I felt really close. I always have expectations that are extremely high until someone shoots me down. Coming in to this year it's the same deal and I'll see what I can do."
Unfortunately the pending labor strife between the NHL and NHLPA could preclude his debut in Pittsburgh. Morrow is headed to Wilkes-Barre in early September and unless the completely unexpected happens, will play for the AHL team until the NHL is back in business. 

Photo: Getty Images
If things get back to normal and there are training camps on time, what are Morrow's chances of cracking the team this time around? Will his strong camp performance last year carry over for his second go at the team? If he's destined for the farm this year, will he take the reassignment with the right mindset? How long of a stay in the AHL would he need before the Pens call him up?

A lot of questions and intrigue surround Morrow this coming year and no matter where it begins, I won't be surprised if he ends the campaign in Steeltown. That's why I've picked Joe Morrow as "One to Watch" in 2012-13.   

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