It's been a long, tough four years for Brenden Morrow. After being named team captain heading into the 2006-07 season, Morrow suffered a devastating injury when tendons in his wrist were cut by a skate blade. He played in just 40 games that season and for most of the year he was a captain in absentia; not exactly what you'd like for a young captain who was handed the "C" in favor over Mike Modano. The following season was actually Morrow's best of his career, and many could argue that despite losing in the Western Conference Finals to the Detroit Red WIngs, he was easily the most valuable player amongst the 16 teams that postseason.
It was after that magical summer of 2008 that it all started to fall apart. The Stars followed up a promising offseason with one of the worst starts in franchise history, and Morrow was lost for the season just 18 games in with a torn ACL. For the second time in three years, Morrow was the captain of the Stars yet wasn't present with his teammates. As the Stars fought to actually make the playoffs that season, Morrow was forced to watch from the side as he rehabbed and you couldn't help but wonder just how different things might have gone that season, not only for the Stars but the franchise as a whole, had Morrow been able to play and the Stars didn't collapse that spring.
Last season, Morrow struggled as he returned from his knee injury and was never the same player we had come to know over the years. Statistically it was his worst full season since 2002, but it wasn't the goal scoring that people became concerned with; Morrow had lost the fire and determination that had led to him being named captain in 2006.
Perhaps it was because of the locker room problems that we now know about, how several tenured veterans divided the team and there was never any true unity amongst teammates. Perhaps Morrow, never quite comfortable on the ice because of the knee, was unable to rally his teammates around their new coach and the new direction the franchise was taking. Morrow is a player that leads not by his words and actions off the ice, but by the way he plays the game on it. That level of play was not present last season and it was very apparent that the team suffered because of it.
There were many (and it's likely some still feel this way) that felt the Stars should have looked to trade Morrow. He was no longer worth the contract he was being paid, his offensive production was down and many said that he never should have been named the captain in the first place. Aside from that magical run in the 2008 playoffs, Morrow had yet to do anything of note with the "C" on his chest and one out of four seasons is not enough to justify the team's commitment.
Maybe he's just healthy now, and he's finally feeling comfortable on the ice. Maybe it was the departure of a couple of players from the locker room that allowed Morrow to truly make this "his team". Whatever the reason, Morrow is not only back to being the captain we all wanted him to be way back in 2006 -- he's becoming a much better player and captain than we perhaps ever hoped he'd become.
With Modano and Marty Turco departing via free agency over the summer, and the retirement of Jere Lehtinen, Morrow is now the longest-tenured player on the team. He's the final remnant of the Glory Days of the franchise and he carries the torch that was lit in during those great seasons of the late 1990s.*
*I know that Langenbrunner is back, but Morrow never left. In that sense, he's the longest tenured, the true "last one left" if you ask me.
He now has commanded the respect of his teammates and while we've seen from the very start of the this season that he's a different player this year, he really didn't take that "next step" until he was hit in the face with a puck a little over a month ago. For whatever reason, no matter how good a season he and the Stars might have been having, him returning to the ice with a cage over a swollen and broken nose meant more to his team than any amount of goals he might have scored.
From that moment forward, we've seen Morrow not only return to the great production we witnessed three seasons ago but he's finally transcended into the captain the Stars have wanted and needed ever since 2006. He now has a full and total command of his team and there's no doubting who the leader is of the Dallas Stars now. He's physical, he's determined and so many times this season when the Stars needed it most he outworked his opponent and made a big play at the perfect time. His teammates see this and rally around his play, and the team as a whole feeds off what he's been doing on the ice.
Morrow is back to being that pest in front of the net, the guy along the boards that punishes opponents with a reversal of a hit and the one that scores the biggest goals at the biggest times of the game. Ever since that injury, Morrow has taken to the ice like a man possessed and the team has followed suit behind him. It's no coincidence in the game against the Oilers, when the Stars desperately needed a goal, he was arguably the team's best player as he once again set the example for how to outwork your opponent on the way to the net.
There are many ways for the captain of a hockey team to be successful. He can be the team's best, most dynamic offensive player who leads his team forward while leading in production on the scoreboard. He could be the hard-hitting, hard-nosed defenseman that sets the example for the team with his physical and intimidating presence in front of the ice. Some are strong off-ice personalities, who are able to bring the team together with their natural leadership ability.
Some, like Brenden Morrow, become a mixture of all styles. Morrow is a quiet guy off the ice, but he's slowly become the face of the team -- especially this season -- after years of standing behind players like Turco, Modano and Lehtinen. It's a bit disingenuous to say that the departure of those three players was needed for Morrow to finally and truly step up, but there's no denying that for the first time in five seasons he can truly call this team "his".
Morrow is on pace this season to once again break the 30-goal mark and while he certainly won't reach the heights of his 2007-08 production (32-42-74, plus-23) he has no doubt taken his game to all new levels. He's found the perfect balance between the physical play he's become known for and the offensive playmaking that has always been a staple of his game throughout his NHL career.
The frustration with Morrow over the past few years was certainly warranted. We wondered just what had happened to the fiery, determined and seemingly-always-smiling forward who had instantly become a fan favorite way back during the 1999-2000 season. We wondered if the pressures of being the team captain was perhaps too much, and whether he felt his loose and physical approach was too over the top for a team's captain to have.
He's found that balance now, this season, and there's a good reason why he's leading the Dallas Stars back to where they deserve to be: contending for the Pacific Division title.