Morrow part of full house for Wilkes-Barre defense
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Joseph Morrow was a first-round draft choice.
He's an elite prospect with an outstanding skills set, a guy capable of making major contributions at both ends of the ice, even in the embryonic stages of his pro career.
Which, given the Penguins' organizational depth on defense, might not make him quite as special as he could -- or maybe, should -- be.
Morrow, the Penguins' No. 1 selection in the 2011 NHL draft, is one of 10 defensemen on the roster of their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, and there's every reason to believe he'll be there when the Baby Penguins open their 2012-13 season Saturday in Binghamton, N.Y.
That, however, won't necessarily translate to a spot in the lineup against the Baby Senators.
Not when Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's defense corps includes the likes of Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo, who would be competing for spots in the NHL if that league wasn't shut down by a lockout.
To say nothing of Simon Despres, a first-round choice in 2009 who has shown enormous promise. And Brian Dumoulin, acquired from Carolina in the Jordan Staal trade and whose training-camp performance has validated management's decision to insist on his inclusion in that deal.
Add proven AHL performers like Dylan Reese, Carl Sneep and Joey Mormina, along with prospects Alex Grant and Philip Samuelsson, to the mix, and the Wilkes-Barre blue line is awfully crowded as the preseason winds down.
All of that means is Morrow can take nothing for granted, which doesn't bother him in the least.
"It could alter your development and your chance to get in the lineup, but, being in this organization, being able to practice with these guys, learning what they do and how they do everything definitely is a plus," he said.
"I wouldn't see it as a negative at all. They'll push you, and they'll show you the way. The depth is definitely a positive."
Baby Penguins coach John Hynes describes it as "a great situation" for Morrow because of the challenges he will face.
"He has to compete for his ice time," Hynes said. "That's important, because when you have to compete for those situations, what you do on a daily basis [in practice] really does matter, because you're competing against other guys who are high-quality players.
"Although we have an abundance of talent on defense, there's not a huge discrepancy between players, so it's going to come down to work ethic and details when they're competing for those spots."
Morrow piled up 17 goals and 47 assists in 62 regular-season games with Portland in the Western Hockey League in 2011-12, then added four goals and 13 assists in 22 playoff appearances.
Those numbers reflect his ability to skate and move the puck, to say nothing of the shot Morrow displayed when he hammered a puck past Hershey goalie Braden Holtby from the right circle on a power play in an exhibition game Saturday.
Morrow made that look easy, but appreciates that he is now facing opponents who are bigger, stronger, faster and more gifted than the ones he went against in major junior hockey.
"You're playing against men now," he said. "You're not playing against boys. The pace of the game is much, much faster, and the structure is definitely more systematic than it is in junior.
"In junior, there are 16-year-olds and there are 20-year-olds, so you can kind of pick your spots and focus on some of the weaker guys. In this league, there are no weak guys. They're all top-end hockey players."
Hynes had been aware of Morrow's offensive talents for a long time.
What he saw in Morrow's pro debut, an exhibition game at Rochester a week ago, was that Morrow was rugged enough to deal with attacking forwards and not shy about doing it.
"When he was in battle situations and had to play physical, he was strong," Hynes said. "He looked real sturdy on his skates.
"He was powerful, he was strong. He won his battles. Those are things you don't get to see as many of in practice. It was nice to see."
As are most things about Morrow's game.
NOTES -- Former Penguins winger Mark Recchi, who retired in 2011, skated with six Penguins -- defensemen Matt Niskanen and Ben Lovejoy, along with forwards Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz, Matt Cooke and Sidney Crosby -- Tuesday at Southpointe. ... Crosby has been invited to but isn't able to play in a charity game this week in Rimouski, Quebec. ... Penguins general manager Ray Shero, assistant general manager Jason Botterill and development coach Bill Guerin visited the team's ECHL affiliate in Wheeling.
First Published October 10, 2012 12:00 am