SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Fictional baseball legend Roy Hobbs had the Wonderboy bat. Derek Morris has the Synergy blade.
Its resurrection could fast become the stuff of legend.
As the story goes, Morris was looking over some of his old statistics this offseason with his boys, Traiten, Presley and Asher, when they asked why he no longer puts up big numbers.
Morris was stumped and a little embarrassed, but around the same time he got a call from an Easton rep alerting him that the Synergy blade he had used during his 48-point season in Colorado in 2002-03 was being remade.
“I had my best year with it so when he asked if I wanted some I said ‘let’s do it,'” Morris said.
The blades were tailored to Morris’s myriad specifications, shipped off to the Valley and took the ice when the Coyotes opened the season.
Twelve games in, and having missed two games due to injury, Morris is tied for seventh among NHL defensemen in points with four goals and five assists, including the goal that sliced Nashville’s lead to 3-2 on Thursday — the goal coach Dave Tippett credited with changing momentum in his team’s 5-4 shootout win.
“The blade is soft so when pucks come I can stop ’em and set ’em up to shoot ’em,” said Morris, who blasted an absolute bomb past Predators goalie Carter Hutton. “I’m not like Keith Yandle or (Oliver Ekman-Larsson) where I can create a whole bunch of things. I rely on getting pucks to the net and looking for tip shots. I have to get rid of the puck quick.”
The Coyotes expect Yandle and Ekman-Larsson to contribute offensively. The two are tied for the league-lead among NHL defensemen with 11 points apiece. But when Phoenix gets consistent contributions from Morris, they get the situation that currently exists.
Phoenix defensemen have 12 goals and 40 points this season, the top mark in the NHL in both categories.
“We ask our defensemen to get one shot each period, so that’s six shots a period and 18 from our blueline in a game,” said Coyotes assistant Jim Playfair, who coaches the defense. “We figure that will create a lot of scoring chances and lately, a lot of them have been going in.”
There was a time when this was expected of Morris. Drafted 13th overall by Calgary in 1996, Morris made the NHL All-Rookie team in 1998 with nine goals and 20 assists, creating aspirations that even he admits fueled him to pursue big points.
“When I came into the league all I wanted to do was get points. I played as hard as I could, as fast as I could and I made a ton of mistakes, but I got my points,” he said. “I liked expectations when I was a kid. I think that drives you to be consistent; to go harder. I don’t know if I ever reached those expectations. I don’t think I ever did, but I had a lot of fun trying.”
Some criticized Morris for not putting up bigger numbers as he bounced between five NHL clubs. Others questioned his work ethic when he was younger. But Morris never really felt the sting of those words because he’s so grounded.
“He’s as big a simpleton as you can imagine,” quipped Yandle, Morris’ longtime defensive partner and longtime friend. “He’s got a pickup truck, probably one pair of jeans, a couple black T-shirts, a couple grey T-shirts and that’s about it.
“He is who he is and he’s proud of who he is. And he’s a guy I owe a lot of my success to.”
Morris has always had a stout body. He’s a solid 6-feet, 210 pounds. But it wasn’t until he went to Colorado and played with Avs’ defenseman Adam Foote that he decided to remodel his game a bit.
“I decided I wanted to be that good, solid, all-around defenseman and chip in offensively here and there,” he said.
His conditioning and calm approach have also made him a role model for the club’s young defensemen, Ekman-Larsson, Michael Stone, David Rundblad and David Schlemko.
“He’s a real good pro,” Tippett said.
Morris turned 35 in August, which may seem old in pro sports parlance. But the NHL is often kind to 35-40-year-old defensemen (like Boston’s Zdeno Chára) because they have achieved a maturity level that suits them well at a position that demands steely nerves.
“Defensemen develop an identity and sometimes that takes a long time,” Playfair said. “He is probably the heaviest, meanest guy we have when he gets into battles, and in bringing that out he may be doing something he hasn’t consistently done in his career. But I think he understands it now and when he’s a hard defensive player, it allows Keith Yandle to be a better offensive player.
“When you look at all the things Derek’s doing for us now, as a 5-on-5 regular, on the penalty kill, on the power play, he’s probably playing the most complete game he’s ever played in the NHL.”
Morris says he’s having as much fun as he’s ever had in his career. Part of that is due to his maturity and wisdom. Part of it is due to a coaching staff that takes an even, fair approach to its personnel. And much of it is due to a core of players so conditioned to battling uphill due to the ownership saga that they have lost their individual identities in the quest for something greater.
“I’m older and getting close to the end and I firmly believe this group and what we’re doing here is pretty special,” Morris said. “It was important to my kids that this team stayed here. Arizona is home and hockey is a good sport. To lose it in a place like this would have been a tragedy.
“Obviously, we didn’t lose it and now you’re seeing the results. Every night we come into the locker room, we’re like ‘who’s going to do it tonight?’ And somebody always does.
“It’s a lot of fun coming to work in a situation like that.”