Monday, September 23, 2013

Blues sign veteran Brenden Morrow to one-year contract

Veteran free agent motivated by lack of interest during summer,
chose St. Louis because of familiarity with Hitchcock, Armstrong, Hull

ST. LOUIS -- As days turned to months for veteran power forward Brenden Morrow, whoever won the bidding for his services in the end was going to get a motivated player.

The 34-year-old Morrow, who chose the Blues on Monday when he agreed to a one-year, $1.5-million contract, was a victim of the lowered salary cap as teams bypassed the Carlyle, Saskatchewan native. He comes to St. Louis with a chip on his shoulders.

"I've got something to prove," said Morrow, who has 249 goals and 542 points in 850 career games to his resume. "I'm a motivated player right now."

(Getty Images)
Brenden Morrow tallied 14 points in 15 games after being traded
to Pittsburgh late last season.
Those words are music to Doug Armstrong's ears after the general manager initiated talks with Morrow in July and again when the Blues played the Dallas Stars in their preseason opener.

"This was a difficult summer for Brenden," Armstrong said. "I think we're going to be the benefactors of that.

"The most dangerous animals are wounded animals, and he's a little bit wounded right now in the sense that he felt that he would demand a longer contract at a higher dollar value. I just think he was a product of the system this year with the cap coming down and money already being spent by teams. We have a very motivated person and a great competitor."

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock has experience with players that have had prominent roles during their respective careers but are asked to play a different, maybe a slightly diminished role as veterans.

So it was up to Hitchcock and Armstrong to convince Morrow, who has played in a prominent role throughout his 13-year career with the Stars and then the Pittsburgh Penguins down the stretch last season, that the Blues will utilize Morrow in areas he can thrive in. It just won't be the 20 minutes per night Morrow was accustomed to throughout the majority of his career.

Morrow, who played for Hitchcock when he first joined the Stars in 1999 after Dallas made the Carlyle, Saskatchewan native the 25th pick in the 1997 NHL Draft.

"I've had a lot of experience dealing with players like Brenden, where they're elite players and finding a little bit of a different role for them," Hitchcock said Monday. "I told Brenden that I look at his role the same way as we did with Kirk Muller when he was in Dallas and Kirk was a great player for us in Dallas, played really well. Johnny MacLean came and played really well.

"It's understanding the balance between the work and rest. When you've played as many minutes as he's played and the style that he's played, you have to put your focus on the hockey games themselves rather than everything around it. We're going to manage his game really well, we're going to put him in positions where he can have success during the games and I think we got ourselves a good player."

Morrow, who had interest from multiple suitors, said the familiarity with Hitchcock and Armstrong from his days also in Dallas as well as Brett Hull, the Blues' executive vice president, made this a good fit.

"We were honest with him," Armstrong said of Morrow. "We showed him where our lineup was. We said that we expect players like (Vladimir) Tarasenko and (Jaden) Schwartz to take a big role on our team, but we're a four-line team. We've always been a four-line team. We're always going to be a four-line team.

"Now is he going to be able to go find a spot with (David) Backes, (Patrik) Berglund and (Derek) Roy, I don't know. That's the coach's decision. One of the things that attracts us to someone like Brenden, you lay it all out and he said, 'Don't worry about the competition. I'll take care of that.' That's what you like to hear. He said, 'I'll take care of my spot on the roster as long as you give me a fair shake,' and he's going to get a fair shake."

Morrow met with Hitchcock, Armstrong and members of the Blues' leadership group, including captain David Backes, and was convinced the Blues were the right choice.

"There were a few factors," said Morrow, who has 249 goals and 542 points in 850 career games. "I wanted to be on a contender for sure and family, I wanted them to be comfortable and myself comfortable knowing Army was there and Hitch and having success with those guys. They knew what to expect from me and I knew what to expect from them. I think the Blues have been a team that's been knocking on the door the last few years and I think they can be a team that can push through it. I wanted to be a part of that.

"I don't think I'm the 20-minute guy I was five, six years ago but I still feel I can contribute, play some hard minutes, be a net-front guy and add some value to the locker room. I'm still going to compete every night and play those hard battles and put the puck in the net at times when the opportunity arises. The last few years I've had some injury issues. Those are all past and the body feels good."

Said Backes, who has had many wars over the years with Morrow: "He's a guy that wants to win. He's not sitting there looking for the biggest contract. He wants to go to a team that's got a great chance at winning. He's got some history with the coaching staff and management here. He knows the guys, he's played against the guys and he knows it's a hard-working team to play against.

"I've played against him and he's not a fun guy to play against. To have him in a Blues jersey, it's a welcomed sight and he'll be another asset on our team."

Morrow also worked out with fellow Blues teammate Barret Jackman over the summer and the Blues' defenseman helped make his pitch.

"Ever since July 5th, I've talked to him," Jackman said of Morrow. "Obviously we had a lot to sort out with our team before Brenden was part of the mix. I always talked up St. Louis. There were no bones about whether he'd be a good fit with our team. It finally came to be. A lot of guys are really excited about it.

"We had great conversations all summer about it. But there's 29 other teams. He's definitely a guy that brings a lot to the table and there's a lot of teams that were after him. It's our good fortune that he was still around at this point. He's willing to sacrifice some money to come to a team that he knows he can contribute to and he sees us as a real contender."

When Morrow went to Pittsburgh at the trade deadline last season, he tallied 14 points in 15 games playing on a line with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal. The Penguins, known more for their open-ice style of play, got the gritty guy that can do the plumber's work in the "dirty areas."

But Morrow, who took a pay cut from the $4.1-million he made last season in the final year of a six-year, $24.6-million contract, could not find any suitors as free agency opened July 5.

Armstrong initiated talks with Morrow in July and the interest was there from both sides, but Morrow wanted to see the Blues' financial situation play out with prominent restricted free agents, including Alex Pietrangelo and Chris Stewart. The sides reconnected when the Blues were in Dallas for a preseason game, and Armstrong and Morrow talked again over a cup of coffee.

"He was understanding that our main focus at that point was to get Alex signed and I felt that if he signed (elsewhere) before us getting Alex signed, I understood," Armstrong said. "When we got Alex finished, then I knew exactly where our roster was and where our finances are at. We engaged again.

"... He had a chance to sit with Ken and I, he had a chance to sit with a couple guys on our leadership group. He watched a couple practices with us, got a feel for the team, and it just picked up steam. "I think he just makes us a better team."

Added Morrow: "We didn't know what to expect, but as the weeks went on from July 5th, we knew we would probably have to ride it out a little bit. In speaking with Doug prior, we knew that Petro and Stewy were big parts of the equation so we had to let those deals ride out and then we were able to speak more and know more of the situation in St. Louis."

And as much as Morrow enjoyed his brief time in Pittsburgh playing with the high-flying Penguins and Sidney Crosby, playing in Hitchcock's defensive, shutdown system is more suited for his style.

"I enjoyed sitting there watching those guys do their thing, but I started in the league with Hitch and our system in Dallas was kind of tailored to a lot of the success the Stars had in the late '90's and early 2000's," said Morrow, whose father-in-law Guy Carbonneau played with the Blues in 1994-95. "Hitch was running the ship and that's what I've grown up with. That's what I knew as a player.

(Getty Images)
Brenden Morrow, who signed a one-year contract with the Blues Monday,
spent nearly 13 seasons playing for the Dallas Stars.
"I think I was brought to the Penguins for a reason, to keep playing that same way and I wasn't going to try to do something I wasn't and play a certain way and I'm not used to. It was enjoyable to watch them compete and play the way they played, but this is more, I guess, tailored to the way I play."

Hitchcock said Morrow, who has been part of Team Canada seven times -- most notably winning the gold medal in the Olympics of 2010, will not play Wednesday in Minnesota against the Wild but will play in a rematch between the teams here Friday. He wants to see Morrow, who flew into St. Louis Monday night and will be on the ice Tuesday, get into a couple practices first.

Hitchcock said he views Morrow as a third-line player but is someone that can play anywhere.

"He's in tremendous shape," Hitchcock said of Morrow. "We saw him here for a day. He's healthy, but he's going to take a couple practices to get up to speed. the nice thing for Brenden is he knows the exact terminology, he knows the way we play. This is not a lot different than, say, the way the Olympic team played or the way we played in 2010. I think from that part of the adjustment, it's not going to be difficult for him, but he's still going to have to get up to tempo and up to speed. He's worked his tail off, but he hasn't practiced with 10 other people. He's going to have to learn to play hockey with other people on the ice rather than just with a skating instructor.

"He's got game left. He's got game left because he's got good hands around the net, he's willing to go into the dirty areas to score, especially on the power play and I think we can play him up and down the lineup depending on the score, depending on the game, depending on how many minutes he plays the night before."

The Blues will carry 14 forwards when the season opens Oct. 3. They have 15 under NHL contracts now. What it means is that there will be a subtraction at some point, via trade or waivers. If a player is waived and goes unclaimed, they would go to Chicago in the American Hockey League. And according to Hitchcock, nobody's on the leading edge of being shipped out.

"I don't think you can have enough good players," Hitchcock said. "I think everybody is going to do some number counting. That's what you've got training camp for. It's no real difference if you've got an emerging player.

"To me, the way (Dmitrij) Jaskin's played the last week, I'd be nervous if I was anybody. He's getting better by the moment. that's just competition. That's the way it goes. If a veteran can't cut the grade in training camp, then that gives you options, or if there's other positions and Doug decides to move a guy out, that's the way it goes. You're here to make an impression now. We haven't closed the door on anybody, but the competition has dictated where guys are going to be at. We've got lots of time before the first game of the season to decide what we're going to do here and guys are going to get hard looks. That's why we practiced the way we practiced today. We'll do the same tomorrow. ... By Sunday morning, we're going to get a real good evaluation."

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