Let's face it: Brenden Morrow is not the same player he once was and he will never be again. This is Morrow's 13th season in the NHL, all with the Dallas Stars, and he has made his living as a player willing and able of getting to the front of the net, playing hard along the boards and generally being a physical presence with a nose for the puck around the net.
For much of his career Morrow was considered one of the more respected leaders in the NHL, especially through example on the ice, and it could be said that his greatest moments came during the 2008 playoffs when he nearly drug the Stars to the Cup finals on his back alone.
Yet the wear and tear of his style has had some negative and lasting effects. A torn ACL, suffered just 18 games into 2008-2009 season, set him back nearly two years before enjoying a career-high 33 goals in 2010-2011 in a season that appeared to signal the return of the Morrow of old. Back and neck injuries, likely ones that will plague him for most of his life at this point, then slowed him down to the point where he completely lost all effectiveness on the ice in a system that appeared to be passing him by.
Appearing in just 57 games last season and scoring just 11 goals, while being relegated to third and fourth line minutes, has led to a growing cry that Morrow's time in Dallas should be coming to an end. Seeing the decline in Morrow's game has been tough to watch, especially considering how it's negatively affected the team, and having the team captain embedded on the fourth line is never a good thing for a franchise.
With the Dallas Stars making sweeping changes over the summer, including a revamped top six and a perceived dedication to become a faster team, Morrow had essentially been passed by. He was slotted into the third line before the season ever started and he's bounced around between third and fourth line minutes, while struggling to get his game back to the level he feels he's still capable of.
Through it all, Morrow has been the ultimate professional. Unlike other "face of the franchise" players past their prime, Morrow has made no complaints -- public or private -- and by all accounts has a good relationship with his coach and understands the situations in which he finds himself.
By all accounts, his health is about as good as you'd expect for a 34-year old NHL veteran known for his physical nature. The neck injury that plagued him last season seems to not be an issue, through extensive rehab and rest through the lockout, and he's said that he just needed time to get back up to game speed and allow his hands to start catching back up to him.
Through the first eight games of the season, Morrow was entrenched on the third and fourth lines once more. While he was far from the liability witnessed last season, the effectiveness that many expect from a player like Morrow was not there and it's led to another loud rallying cry that the Stars should start thinking long and hard about moving on from the team's long-time captain.
"I know there are people out there saying it, and I don't believe it,'' Morrow told Mike Heika, in regards to talk that he's "done."
"Does it hurt? Sure,'' Morrow continued. "I know it's a what have you done for me lately league, but you would think that after giving 13 years, you're allowed to have an injured year and then the chance to come back and prove yourself. But it's pro sports, and I'm fully aware of that.''
Morrow certainly received a big chance to prove himself this past weekend, when he was given a spot on the top line with Jamie Benn and Jaromir Jagr after Ray Whitney was lost for a month with a broken foot.
There's an interesting notion at play here, when Morrow was given the open spot on the top line over someone like Reilly Smith or even Matt Fraser. It was clear that the news of the promotion would be met with disdain and even anger from fans, who have too-fresh memories of the struggles of last season when Morrow had an incredible 97 penalty minutes in just 57 games because of the degradation of his play on the ice.
Yet there is a human element at play here. Morrow has given his heart and soul to the Stars over the years and never let any frustration be known when his name was floated in trade rumors -- some legitimate -- the past few seasons. While the effectiveness of his ability as captain has been called into question, Morrow is still seen as a well-respected leader in the locker room and by those with the Stars organization.
Through nine games, Morrow had just two assists while bouncing between the third and fourth line. It seemed as if the Stars and Morrow were trying to find the right fit for the captain and the playing style of those he was on the ice with, especially the dump-and-chase methods of Nystrom and Fiddler, did little to play to his strengths as a player.
Yet Morrow was not playing poorly, even if his offensive effectiveness had slackened. Through nine games, Morrow had taken just two unmatched minors; one an interference call and one a high-sticking penalty when a Coyotes forward literally fell face-first into his stick blade. He'd also managed to draw two penalties and certainly had seemed to solve many of the penalty issues that endlessly plagued him last season.
It only makes sense then, when a spot opened up in the top six, that the Stars would give Morrow a shot to actually prove whether he's capable of producing or not. One could say that, through tenure with the team, that Morrow had "earned" this one final chance to show the team that he's still capable of being an effective player on the ice -- perhaps not as good as he once was, but far from the soul-sucking liability seen last season.
The combination of Morrow, Jagr and Benn was the only effective line for the Stars on Saturday night in Phoenix and while no goals were scored, the chances were certainly there. It seemed that Morrow's hard style along the boards and ability to get to the net were a good compliment for the duo of Jagr and Benn, who were still working on chemistry of their own.
On Monday in Colorado, that top line finally cashed in and accounted for all three goals in the one-goal victory. Morrow's penchant for getting to the net paid off once again, when he popped in a rebound off a dastardly shot by Jagr. Later in the game he seemed to notch a second goal off a rebound when he was called for goaltender interference, a borderline call at best when considering the goaltender's fine acting job.
The game wasn't exactly a "return to form" for Morrow, yet it certainly showcased what he can still be capable of. Perhaps playing with Benn and Jagr, who certainly compliment his playing style much better than other line combinations on the team, was the spark he needed; Morrow's performances against the Coyotes and Avalanche can certainly be seen as perhaps his best since that that 33-goal season two years ago.
"He put in a tremendous amount of work and he's a very focused individual right now," Gulutzan stated after the win on Monday night. "With the injury to Derek we wanted some balance. We needed Brenden to step up and he has. He's the leader of this group and he's got to step up. That line is getting some chemistry. You can write things down as much as you want in the summertime, but you never know when it appears and it seems to be jelling pretty good."
This was just one game and it's dangerous to attempt to draw conclusions from one performance against a depleted Avs team and claim that "Morrow is back and better than ever." Yet this isn't a game of playing the sentimental factor and hoping for the best; the Stars are seeing what could be an effective top line with Morrow on it that allows for better offensive balance throughout the lineup.
The Stars are also going to have a very tough decision coming very soon, first leading up to the trade deadline and April and then again this summer when Morrow is set to become a free agent. Morrow's name has been mentioned for a few seasons now as a possible trade target for teams in need of grit and leadership for the postseason and while Morrow has a full no-trade clause, the idea of the long-time captain being dealt is always going to be a very real possibility.
Until then, Morrow will push forward. As long as he's effective with Benn and Jagr and no longer shows signs of the liability he became last season, then Morrow will get a shot to continue to get big minutes on a team in desperate need of positive momentum coming out of a frustrating start to the season. On Monday night, Morrow and the Stars enjoyed a very real victory -- both emotionally and in the standings -- with the next step being to build on this success and move forward.
"Honestly, I don't know and I try not to think about any of that anymore,'' Morrow told Heika when discussing the possibility of a trade. "I really just want to focus on each workout and each shift and truly believe that will help me through this. I'd like to think I can help this team, but it's just frustrating if you think too much and then it doesn't happen. So, you stay grounded and you focus on being prepared for anything.''