Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli has long been adamant about acquiring another puck-moving defenseman. Back in March, Chiarelli tried hard to do it at the NHL trading deadline. And at the NHL Entry Draft in June, he tried again by making an unsuccessful bid for Leafs defenseman Tomas Kaberle.
But on Saturday, a giddy and proud Chiarelli announced that he had finally landed what he believes to be his catch of the summer in unrestricted free-agent defenseman Derek Morris, another player he had tried to deal for at the deadline. The Bruins signed Morris to a one-year deal worth $3.3 million and believe they have the final ingredient for their defense.
"We are very excited to have him on board," Chiarelli said in a Saturday-afternoon conference call. "He's a right-shot defenseman who has considerable offensive skill. He can play both sides. He has a very thick, strong body and a very competitive edge. He can move a puck. He can find a seam. We feel he's an upgrade to our defense."
Both Chiarelli and head coach Claude Julien have stressed the importance of a quick transition game, mobility and that first defensive pass out of the zone. And with the addition of Morris, Chiarelli believes he has completed his plan of putting together a blue line that excels in those areas. Despite losing some physical presence with the trade of Aaron Ward and departure of Shane Hnidy, Chiarelli thinks Morris can bring the right combination of skill and size and maybe even join captain Zdeno Chara on the club's top defensive pairing.
"We feel we've added a No. 2 defenseman to our mix," said Chiarelli. "We feel we've upgraded. He's a guy who brings more skill to our lineup. He can retrieve pucks, he can get to pucks and he can compete. I really like the makeup of our defense now.
"I feel we've upgraded it [by getting] a little more mobile, when you talk about Andrew [Ference] and Matt Hunwick in the mix," Chiarelli continued. "And [despite] the physical responsibilities that we might have lost, Derek's a tremendous competitor. He can handle those things. Mark Stuart is going to handle those things. And, of course, we've got Zdeno Chara there. So I don't feel that we lost any of that when we made these changes."
Morris listed the Bruins' use of a box-plus-one system as one of the reasons he chose to sign with the team. He met with Chiarelli and Julien earlier in the month and was instantly sold on the idea that the Bruins were the right fit on the ice for him.
"It's a very manageable system for a defenseman," Morris said. "You play your game really smart and worry about your own end first. Our forwards come back really hard. As a defenseman, that's a dream. You want back-pressure that will allow you to stay up a little more. There are situations where you might not have a great gap, but you'll have forward help.
"In talking to them, they want me to do a real good job of getting the puck out of the zone and making that first pass. There are great forwards on this team who control the puck really well. As a defenseman, my job is to get it to the forwards."
While Morris' primary role here in Boston will be to help the transition game and provide offensive punch, he won't be afraid to throw a few punches should he need to stick up for someone.
"I'm a guy who plays hard for my teammates," said the 6-foot, 220-pound defenseman who has amassed 794 career penalty minutes in 793 games. "Maybe a few of those incidents happened because I was sticking up for people on my team. Obviously with the way the game has changed, there's not quite as much of that fighting as there used to be. I try not to take those two-minute roughing penalties or that hooking penalty or that penalty that does cost you in the long run.
"I'm there for my teammates when things go bad. I'll be the first one in there, win or lose. I've probably lost more than I've won, but I'm willing to get in there for my teammates and do whatever I need to do to win games."
Morris is 30 and has played eleven seasons in the NHL with his best offensive output coming in the 2002-03 season when he had 48 points (11 goals and 37 assists) for the Avalanche. Morris finished last season with the Rangers after he was traded to New York from Phoenix at the deadline.
He admitted that his game declined and his passion waned during his five seasons in Phoenix but claimed his time in New York and a taste of the playoffs in the Rangers' seven-game loss to the Capitals has reignited the flame inside.
"In New York at the end of last year, I learned how to play again," Morris said. "I had fun playing hockey again. It was a little bit frustrating playing in Arizona. You start questioning yourself. I was questioning myself and what I was doing wrong and [was] trying to make that better. Getting the opportunity in New York opened up my eyes to what it took to play in the NHL once again."