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Free Agent Defensemen & the Devils: Derek Morris

Over the past two weeks or so of this feature, I've went over top pairing defensemen like Jay Bouwmeester, Scott Niedermayer, and (to a lesser extent) Mattias Ohlund.  As of late, I've went over defensive defensemen: Christian Backman, Mike Komisarek, Hal Gill, and Rob Scuderi.  Let's change things up today and look at an actual two-way defenseman: Derek Morris.   Yes, a Ranger.

Well, to be fair, he was a Coyote and was traded to the Rangers at the deadline back in March.   Actually, he was even rumored to be coming to New Jersey prior to the deadline, but clearly that deal fell through.

Derek Morris

#53 / Defenseman / New York Rangers



Aug 24, 1978

2008-09 Salary: $3.95 million

2008 - Derek Morris 75 5 15 20 -10 40 0 1 0 0 120 4.2

Derek Morris is a bit of a conundrum to figure out.  I referenced a scouting report from Sportsnet on Morris when I put up word about that rumor.  It's still up there and it's as clear as mud.  It touts that he's got all these skills from shooting to skating to aggression and so forth. Then it notes that he loses concentration in his own zone and gives away the puck, finishing up by rating him as a #2 defenseman.  I'm sorry, but I don't like reading that a #2 defenseman has a tendency to lose focus on defense and give away the puck - that's not something I expect from a top 4 defenseman, much less a #2 defenseman.  I would hope it's not nearly as bad as it looks.  Otherwise, I don't see how he would be rated as a #2 defenseman! 

The uneasiness I have about Morris doesn't end here. Read on and learn a little bit more of what I think about Morris as a potential signing.

Adding to the murkiness is Blueshirt Banter's less-than-impressed evaluation of Morris as a Ranger.   Rob didn't think he's all that great of a skater or aggressive enough to warrant a return. Especially with his salary, which is at a bizarrely high $3.95 million.  Still, he did note that he's got a great shot so that's some praise at least.   While you could argue that perhaps he wasn't settled in with New York after 18 games and 7 playoff games, this recent evaluation isn't exactly warming me up to the thought of him as a Devil.

The even strength numbers at Behind the Net are definitely not complementary for Morris in 2008-09.  While he doesn't face weak competition, the shots against per 60 minutes when Morris is on the ice was 31.6 this season.  Worse than that is that number goes down to 27.5 when Morris is off the ice.  His CORSI is -8.2 and the team has a slightly lower shots for per 60 minutes value when Morris is on the ice (25.5) than when he does off the ice (25.8).   Not good for someone who has a great shot.

Now I know he played most of last season in Phoenix and the Rangers weren't offensive machines and who knows exactly how he was used and other factors could contribute to all that. Especially for the shots for and CORSI numbers, his teammates could throw him off there.  Perhaps Morris was forced to play back more or that his teammates on the ice weren't able to create a lot of offense or shots.  Still, I'd expected a bit better when looking at these sorts of numbers.   Fortunately, the goals against per 60 is slightly lower than when Morris is on the ice (2.49 compared to 2.64). He's got that going for him.  Too bad the goals for per 60 numbers don't (1.87 with him, 2.54 without).

There are positives with Morris, however.  He would bring something new to the Devils defense: a shot.  Morris has this skill to put a puck on net from distance and it would be a nice one for the Devils.  He has had at least 120 shots on goal and at least 20 points per season in his career. The lone exception to this was in 2005-06 in 53 games with Phoenix - with 91 shots and 27 points.   Regardless, even if Morris maintained the same number of shots, he'd still lead the Devils defensemen in shots.  With the Devils forwards up front able to pounce on loose pucks, that could give him much more than the 20 points he did have this season. 

I cannot understate enough that this is a big positive given the lack of offense from the blueline.  Remember, the Devils don't really have an offensive weapon on the blueline and Morris' skill set and history suggests that he could thrive in that role.  Even if he's not strong on defense as this past season's numbers may indicate, he doesn't have to be a top pairing guy.  His minutes could be limited to the second pairing.  And, hey, if any team can help a defender improve their game, it's the Devils.  (Proof: Mike Mottau).  I feel very strongly that Morris' style and role would fit a need for the Devils.   I have to think that's why there were rumors for Morris at the trade deadline in March; perhaps Lou also felt that way (but clearly not enough for the cost Phoenix wanted).

Of course, there's an 800 pound elephant in the room to deal with: money.  Given what I've seen of Morris and read, I'm really amazed he's making just under $4 million.  I knew he was all the rage as an up-and-coming defender with Calgary.  He then broke out with Colorado for an astonishing 48 point season - and then, the fall. 2003-04 was the last season he touched 30 points in a season and since then, Morris has had a decline in points.  Yet, he's been getting $3.95 million was what he was paid.  His recent cap hit was $3.917 million and that's on a 3 year deal with Phoenix had; so he was being paid this much in these recent seasons where his production has declined.   I don't think he's really worth that much and it would be awful if the Devils were to go after Morris, give him similar (or more) money and the Devils get the same results from Morris from recent seasons return.  I would rather have that same money go to Oduya or someone else.

And this is all assuming he even wants to go to New Jersey - he may want to go elsewhere to lead the defense like he did in Phoenix instead of being just a part of one on a second pairing, getting 20 minutes or less a night. 

Again, while the praise for Morris seems to be mainly for what he can do, I think the numbers aren't justifying all that praise.  Be it the per 60 minute numbers at Behind the Net for even strength play; or just his career point totals.  I think he would fit the need for a more offensive defenseman on the Devils.  If they are as good as advertised, he would clearly fill that void.  I even think that if he came to New Jersey, he could amass more points than he has been recently.  Yet, considering the money, his recent production, and that his flaws include his focus on defense and handling of the puck, I can't help but think that Derek Morris is overrated.  Unless he comes at a bargain - which I don't expect at all - Morris would not be a good signing for the Devils.

Perhaps you would beg to differ on Morris.  Maybe there's more to him than meets the eye, like a Transformer?  Is there something I missed?  Or perhaps you agree and the Devils should miss him in favor of someone else? Either way, have your say in the comments.