Morrison works his way up

PATRICK WILLIAMS -- Special to SLAM! Sports

, Last Updated: 12:33 PM ET

EDMONTON -- Mike Morrison's pathway to the NHL life with the Edmonton Oilers came nearly devoid of any attention whatsoever.

But holding the Vancouver Canucks to one goal, helping pull the Oilers to within two points of the Northwest Division lead and doing that all on Hockey Night in Canada provided Morrison all the post-game media attention that he could handle in the Edmonton dressing room, where a large horde descended upon the goaltender who now is the owner of a 9-2-0 mark.

The Oilers' AHL situation over the past few seasons has been nothing if not eventful, and somewhere along the line Morrison got a bit lost in the shuffle.

The Oil wrapped up a successful stay in Hamilton in 2003, teaming up with Montreal to send the Bulldogs to Game 7 of the 2003 Calder Cup Final that June.

From there the Oilers' AHL prospects had a one-and-done 2003-04 season in Toronto, where the Roadrunners crashed and burned as the AHL affiliate of an NHL parent club two time zones away and locked smack-dab in the heart of Leafs country.

So the Roadrunners tinkered with with their spelling, became the Road Runners and head west to Edmonton. Blink and you missed them, for the newly christened Road Runners lasted barely more than 10 months in Edmonton in what may have been the most unlikely depot in the AHL's 70-season history.

This season the Oilers have scattered their prospects, though AHL president and CEO Dave Andrews indicated at his state-of-the-league press conference last week in Winnipeg that the return of a full affiliation for the Oilers for 2006-07 was a definite possibility. The American midwest has been rumoured to be the most likely destination.

Along the way, the Road Runners have had a respectable number of candidates for NHL promotion to Rexall Place. The defence had Jeff Woywitka and Doug Lynch. Jeff Deslauriers showed promise in net. Tony Salmelainen looked solid up front.

Well, Woywitka and Lynch are no longer even in the Edmonton organization, both shipped off to St. Louis in the Chris Pronger deal. Woywitka should eventually stick with the Blues, though he is already on this third NHL organization. Lynch has been an even bigger disappointment and found himself shipped off to ECHL Alaska earlier.

Salmelainen headed off to Europe this season, and his NHL rights were sent to Chicago in the Jaroslav Spacek deal. Deslauriers struggled this season with the Hamilton Bulldogs, who are splitting Edmonton's prospects this season with the Iowa Stars, until he was dispatched to the ECHL last week.

Morrison?

Well, he began his AHL career in 2003-04 and found himself behind solid proven veterans in Steve Valiquette and Tyler Moss. Last season in Edmonton, Deslauriers entered the picture, Moss remained on the scene and Morrison managed just 14 AHL games.

Considering that he was 26 entering this season, barely sticking around the AHL and within an organization that no longer had a full AHL affiliation in which it could determine its AHL goaltending structure, Morrison's career hardly was flourishing this past summer.

With Ty Conklin and Jussi Markkanen with the Oilers, Morrison could not even manage an AHL gig. There was no room in Iowa with Dallas prospects Dan Ellis and Mike Smith already penciled in for duty there, and the only one goaltending spot was available in Hamilton, where the Montreal Canadiens already had an AHL goaltending glut.

Off it was to Greenville, S.C. and an ECHL stay with the Grrrowl, putting Morrison just about as far away physically and figuratively from Edmonton as possible. Such is the organizational leverage of a goalie taken in the seventh round of the 1998 NHL Entry Draft.

So, how does a goaltender go from at best fourth on the organizational depth last season to the starting NHL job within the span of a year?

For one thing, he does not pout and instead heads off to Greenville and dominates the ECHL. Then the Conklin-Markkanen duo is less than stellar, the Oilers are up and down and Morrison gets his shot in November when Conklin goes on the shelf with a groin strain.

Morrison has an excellent November that wraps up with the NHL naming the Massachusetts native its Defensive Player of the Week for the week ending November 27h.

"You've just got to stay patient and work hard," Morrison explained of what it is like to be in the position that he occupied heading into this season. "You just have to confidence in your in ability. Be honest with yourself and know that if you're getting better, you are, but if you're not, you've got to pay attention and fix it."

Then came a December 17th tilt in Vancouver, a HNIC special that was anything but special for Morrison. The Canucks rocked Morrison for two goals on their first four shots in the opening 7:04, knocking him out of the game. Two nights later back at home versus Calgary, the Flames beat him three times on 10 shots. Morrison left that game as well and went a month between Edmonton appearances after being dispatched to Greenville on January 5th for what was termed a conditioning assignment.

"I think the first HNIC game in Vancouver may have gotten me on edge, and I sure enough I was (knocked) out of there."

The ECHL is a full two levels down the food chain from the NHL life, but it offers a full immersion program for goaltenders who need to see pucks, and plenty of them.

"My philosophy is a shot is a shot," Morrison explained from a goaltender's perspective, whether that shot is from an NHL shooter or an ECHL skater.

"There is a lot less asked of you here than in Greenville. Definitely down there you get a lot more opportunities (to see shots), a lot more grade-A (scoring) chances (than in the NHL)."

"Most guys down there are not getting paid enough to block shots like the guys up here are, and that's understandable. Plus, our team up here in general is such a great defensive team in terms of the sacrifices that they make to keep the puck out of our net."

Goaltending opportunities at the NHL are extremely difficult to procure, even for goaltenders who excel in the AHL. Just ask Valiquette and Moss, who were both ahead of Morrison on the Oilers' goaltending depth chart over the past two seasons. Both top-notch AHL goalies, Valiquette managed just 11 NHL games over his North American career, Moss had just 30 NHL games and both put the NHL dream to rest last summer to head over to Russia for goaltending work there.

Jason LaBarbera tore up the AHL for much of his career. Only this year after escaping a dead end in New York with the Rangers did LaBarbera finally get a real crack at the NHL with the Los Angeles Kings.

So, a goaltender up from the AHL does not have the luxury of easing into the NHL swing and is not a fourth-liner who is asked to chip in a few minutes, throw a few hits and more or less stay out of the way.

"If you get it," Morrison said of this goaltending reality, "you've really got to seize the day."


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