With the start of training camp one day away, the Winnipeg Jets find themselves embroiled in a pair of tough contract negotiations with top-tier restricted free agents Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor, but GM Kevin Cheveldayoff carved out some time to ensure that he has taken care of an important bit of future business: on Thursday morning, the Jets announced they have come to terms on an eight-year, $50-million extension with RFA-to-be Josh Morrissey.
Morrissey’s new pact, which will kick in next season and see his cap hit nearly double to $6.25-million per season from its current $3.15-million figure, is not the RFA news most in Winnipeg were expecting, to be sure, but you can rest assured that it’s welcome. As much as Laine and Connor were present concerns, the value of a potential Morrissey extension, especially ahead of a season in which he was set to further cement himself as part of the top-pairing and a cornerstone of the blueline, was cause for some handwringing in Winnipeg. Now, his extension can be crossed off the to-do list, and it not only gives the Jets some cap certainty moving forward but the price tag gives Winnipeg a level of flexibility most weren’t expecting.
Already in his young career, the 24-year-old has made it evident that he’s a defensive stalwart that plays a nearly mistake-free game, an impressive feat for a rearguard his age. Last season, Morrissey had the second-best relative possession percentage (2.1 percent) of all Jets defensemen, behind only Dustin Byfuglien, and ranked sixth in that category among all Winnipeg skaters. Almost across the board, too, Morrissey had among the best underlying metrics of any Jets blueliner, again second to only Byfuglien in most noteworthy categories. It was that level of defensive reliability that made Morrissey a favorite of bench boss Paul Maurice, and that was reflected in Morrissey's ice time, which eclipsed 22 minutes per outing and neared an average of 22:30 last season, third behind Byfuglien and Trouba.
But what gives the deal tremendous upside and potential to become an absolute steal in awfully short order is that Morrissey’s offensive upside began to truly shine through last season and could come to the fore as early as the 2019-20 campaign.
A consistent contributor who registered 13 goals and 46 points in 163 games across his rookie and sophomore seasons, Morrissey used his additional ice time last season to display his tools on the attack. Despite missing 23 games last season, Morrissey’s six goals were one shy of his career best, all the while he set new high-water marks with 25 assists in 31 points. On a per-game basis, his .53 points per game rate was far and away the best of his young career, and given his per-game outputs, he would have been in line to score eight goals and 43 points across an 82-game slate. Putting that into context, that’s an identical goal total and only seven points fewer than Trouba scored last season, and he recently received a seven-year, $56-million deal from the New York Rangers.
There’s ample reason to believe that Morrissey is only beginning to scratch the surface of his offensive ability in the NHL, as well. When he was selected 13th overall in 2013, he had just posted 15 goals and 47 points in 70 games with the Prince Albert Raiders. He followed that up with an eye-popping 28-goal, 73-point performance in 59 Western League contests the following season. Then he capped his major junior career with 13 goals and 38 points in 47 games and another two goals and 14 points in 13 playoff outings, all the while breaking off for part of the campaign to patrol Canada’s World Junior Championship blueline, where he won gold and was named a tournament all-star.
One needn’t look far to find an area where Morrissey has the opportunity to contribute more offensively, either. While he averaged a team-high 2:49 per game on the penalty kill last season, he was far less vital to the power play, generally relegated to second-unit duty. His 1:45 average was third among Jets defenders last season, behind Byfuglien (3:04) and Trouba (2:04), but the departure of the latter brings with it the possibility for Morrissey to consistently quarterback the second unit and potentially earn a role with the big guns if Laine is absent for any stretch of time to start the season. This is probably where it should be noted Morrissey’s 5.8 points per 60 minutes on the power play ranked fifth among all Jets last season, too. When given the chance, he's produced.
And if Morrissey uses his newfound ice time – be it the additional minutes he skates at even strength or on special teams – to turn in the best offensive season of his career and outpace even last year's numbers, there’s every possibility that this extension will turn into a Mark Scheifele-esque contract in the very near future. That’s to say it will be the kind of team-friendly contract that is the envy of 30 other franchises, because a true breakout campaign could have realistically seen Morrissey land something in the $8-million range come next summer.
But even if his offensive contributions don't skyrocket, even if his offensive output simply remains at the same level, the pact is still a win for the Jets, who’ve locked in a key cog and arguably their best two-way defenseman to an eight-year pact at a dollar figure that in no way breaks the bank.
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