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Blue line traveler

Morris believes Boston is right destination for him

By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / September 10, 2009

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WILMINGTON - Last March, before the Coyotes left Phoenix for a five-game road swing that kicked off in Boston, defenseman Derek Morris was told by general manager Don Maloney that he would not be joining the club on the trip.

Morris was in the last months of his three-year contract. The Coyotes, mired in an ownership mess that has yet to be resolved, were itching to ship out veterans for younger, cheaper players. So while his teammates were on their way to TD Banknorth Garden for an afternoon practice on March 4, Morris was in Phoenix, working out on his own and waiting for the trade - Maloney kept Morris home because he didn’t want him to get hurt - that he knew was coming.

“They’re long,’’ Morris said of the days leading up to a deal. “I’ve been around long enough that we’ve seen it all. We kind of expect stuff like that to happen around the deadline. Obviously I wished I was still practicing with the team right up until the time. But the way it worked out, I was at home.’’

The Bruins, who signed Morris to a one-year, $3.3 million contract July 24 as the centerpiece of their most significant offseason shuffle (Aaron Ward was traded to Carolina to clear cap space), engaged the Coyotes in discussions regarding the defenseman prior to the deadline. The Bruins lost out to the Rangers, who acquired Morris for their stretch run for Nigel Dawes, Dmitri Kalinin, and Petr Prucha.

But by losing out on Morris last March, the Bruins may reap the ultimate benefits.

Prior to last season’s seven-game Rangers-Capitals showdown, Morris hadn’t made a playoff appearance since 2002-03, when he dressed in seven games for Colorado. Between those playoff bookends, Morris spent six lonely years (including one lost to the lockout) doing little to make his case as a winner. He pulled on a Phoenix uniform for 288 games, all in the regular season.

So when Morris landed on Broadway and was paired with John Tortorella, who had replaced Tom Renney behind the Blueshirts’ bench, winning became not only a priority but a reality, and an appetizer for the entree he hopes is coming in Boston.

“It was a breath of fresh air,’’ said Morris. “You knew you had an opportunity to get into the playoffs. You knew you were going to win games. You knew the situation.

“I was just having fun. I was like a little kid again playing on a new team. It was exciting. I wish it went a little better. Obviously we lost in Game 7. But it was a fun situation.’’

Discipline and structure
Wayne Gretzky, for all his greatness with his stick, has produced a checkered record with his whistle. As a coach, the Great One is a not-so-great 143-161-24 in four seasons manning the Phoenix bench.

In contrast, Tortorella, let go by the Lightning prior to 2008-09 - a mercy move in hindsight, given the franchise’s bumblings last season under new ownership - is considered one of the league’s sharper minds and motivators. Tortorella, a ring winner in 2004, led the Rangers to a 12-7-2 finish last season while earning Morris’s respect.

“The D were pinching up hard, real aggressive, lots of work from the D to get up,’’ said Morris. “Then other teams adapted to that, so we switched it so the D were between the two dots and our forwards were pushing the guys to the outside coming back hard.

“We used two different systems. It was different. Much tighter gaps, a lot more movement. In Phoenix, we were kind of changing every single day. We didn’t really have a system there.’’

It was that taste of discipline under Tortorella that left Morris looking for more. On July 1, Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli contacted Brad Devine, Morris’s agent, to express his interest in the offensive-minded defenseman. But Chiarelli also emphasized that he needed to make a move before he could meet Morris’s contract demands.

Later that month, while considering contracts from other clubs, Morris accepted Chiarelli’s offer to visit Boston. Morris stayed at a downtown hotel, had dinner with Chiarelli, then spent the next day touring Ristuccia Arena, meeting the coaching staff, and getting the feel for the city, before returning to his offseason home in Arizona.

During his visit, Morris came to the conclusion that he’d get all the structure he wanted in Boston, where coach Claude Julien often says he prefers things in black and white, with little gray area.

“We’re creatures of habit,’’ Morris said. “We do what we’re told. If we don’t have structure, we’re pretty much lost, whether it’s getting on the bus or going on the plane.

“It sounds funny being that we’re grown men, but we’re almost babied to the point where we need structure in our lives.’’

Boston looked best
Morris liked what he saw of Julien’s system - a box-plus-one defensive formation with the wingers collapsing in the slot. Morris appreciated that the forwards were instructed to race back hard for the puck, giving the defensemen an easy, short outlet to kick off the breakout.

Morris also recognized the shortcomings in his game that could be addressed with the proper coaching, environment, and teammates. Morris could be paired with defending Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara, who has proven to be a valuable asset for every partner he’s had.

“They said I had a bad stick, which I know I do right now,’’ Morris said. “That’s a very simple thing to change. It’s just chasing your stick a little bit more on the ice rather than going in for the big hit.

“When you have no system and no structure, you’re basically running around and trying to overwork to compensate for having no structure. They said, ‘You’re a guy who’s going to get more structure.’

“With our system, it’s moving the puck up real quick to the forwards. They come back real hard, so you have nice little outs everywhere. Whether it’s a guy on the wall or [Marc Savard] - he likes to float around in the middle in that little soft pocket - as a D-man, you can find those simple plays.

“They said it’s a simpler game, but a smarter and harder game.’’

After the Bruins traded Ward and bought out Patrick Eaves, they had the space to sign Morris. And the defenseman hadn’t received any other offers that looked better than Boston’s proposal.

On Saturday, all players report to Ristuccia for physicals and off-ice testing. Sunday is the first day of on-ice activities at TD Garden, and the first preseason game is next Tuesday at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers. Three weeks from today, Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals touch down at the Garden for the 2009-10 season opener.

For Morris, it all can’t happen soon enough.

“My goal is to win the Stanley Cup,’’ Morris said. “I’m 31 years old. I’m not worried about another contract. I’m worried about trying to fit in with the team and doing whatever I can do to help win, whether that’s getting points or sometimes having to be a little more risky. I’m going to worry about my own end and do what they tell me to do.

“Whatever they tell me to do to win, I’m going to do.’’

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com.

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