If there was anything evident about Brenden Morrow last season, it's that he simply wasn't himself.
The Dallas Stars captain was only one season removed from a career-high 33 goals, but things went wrong from very early in the season. Morrow suffered a minor knee injury in the first preseason game against the Montreal Canadiens, but he struggled with it for the first part of the season.
And once that cleared up, a bothersome neck and/or shoulder problem reared its ugly head and never really went away. The injury forced Morrow to injured reserve in late January, and he didn't return until mid-March. The sum total for the season was 25 games missed due to injury to go with 11 goals and 26 points, the lowest totals in both categories for seasons in which he played more than 20 games.
But with more than eight months off to let the cranky body parts heal, will this year be different? Morrow certainly hopes so.
First, to recap the troubling neck/shoulder/back issue, which limited Morrow's ability to maneuver on the ice, let alone play his usual physical style.
Morrow has been bothered by stiffness in his upper back and neck that make it painful at times and also make it difficult to turn his head. He has used rest and injections to deal with the problem for more than a year, but those solutions aren’t working as well now.
The injections were great at first, and they really solved the problem," Morrow said. "But the first one lasted a year, and then the next one maybe five or six months, and then the next one a month or so, and then this last one maybe seven days. So we have to take a different approach to this."
While Morrow has never disclosed the specifics of the injury, he did mention it involved a disc in an interview at the end of last season. Disc issues are, in very scientific terms, no fun at all. Jo Innes, now of Backhand Shelf, had a pretty comprehensive post on the nitty gritty of disc injuries a few years ago while describing some back problems Daniel Alfredsson was having. It's well worth a read if you're a medical nerd like me.
She mentions surgery as a possible solution, but Morrow said after last season that surgery would not be necessary.
The approach Morrow has tried to take involves rest and core strength, something he had plenty of during the eight-month lockout. He emphasized core workouts and flexibility through spin classes and Pilates as he waited for the NHL and NHLPA to get their collective acts together.
In a conversation with Mike Heika, Morrow detailed some of the things he's been doing to work on those issues but also noted he won't really know how everything will respond until he gets hit in a real game.
Well, the problem is that until you go out there, you don’t know. I think I’m at a good place, and I think the extra time to work on things like spin class and Pilates has to help, but you have to get out there and play. You asked me before about the "reversal" (a move where Morrow launches himself backward into a checker while he’s protecting the puck along the boards) and whether or not that caused the neck problems, and I honestly don’t think it has. When I do that move, I’m bracing for the hit or delivering the hit, and I don’t feel pain. It’s when I’m not looking or I’m twisted around, and I don’t expect to get hit…that’s when I feel the pain. So, the big question is when I do get one of those hits, do I just shake it off and it’s no problem or does it really hurt and I have to deal with the problem again?
That's quite a question, and one that will have a large impact on the Stars lineup.
Even if he's completely healed, Morrow is likely to be a third or fourth line winger in a healthy group of forwards. But he adds an important element of net presence and a willingness to bang that will be important on a relatively small team.
Additionally, he was working with one of the power play units during training camp, and the Stars desperately need an uptick in production there. A healthy Morrow, or at least a more healthy one, could definitely help that.
From a longer term perspective, Morrow only has one year left on his contract before hitting UFA status. He will make $4.1 million this season, and his play this season will undoubtedly impact the size of his contract and the team that he will sign it with. A resurgent Morrow is still a valuable commodity in this league, even in a slightly reduced role from his prime.
The other question is how Morrow will manage the combination of his style of play and the lingering injury. As Brad wrote last spring:
The trick for Morrow, and countless other players who make their mark in this league playing a physical, grinding style, is figuring out how to stay effective when that relentless physicality starts taking a toll on his body as it is now. He makes a living in this league scoring goals within 12 feet of the net, and one must pay to visit those areas. He'll have to maximize the value of his dwindling number of physical confrontations going forward, making sure the ones he must endure are in exchange for quality offensive opportunities. (Which is a round-about way of saying "play smarter, not harder")
Couldn't put it better myself.
Morrow's been dealing with these questions all summer (and fall and winter...). We'll finally have at least the start of his answers on Saturday.