Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Curious Case of Brendan Morrison

Brendan Morrison will soon be taking the ice on a tryout basis with the Vancouver Canucks. Morrison from 2000 to 2008 played with those Canucks, frequently on its top line along with super Swede Markus Naslund and bruiser Todd Bertuzzi. Morrison in those days was a bona-fide top-line center, but since his Vancouver days he hasn't been as solid. More recently, it has been both age and injury affecting his play. In the 2009-2010 season, with Washington, Morrison had a bounce-back year of sorts, claiming the team's second and later third line center spot while going 12-30-42 +23 in 74 games played and 15:44 TOI per game, at the bargain price of $1.5 million. Still, I wasn't too displeased that George McPhee indicated that Morrison would not be re-signed. I figured that Morrison would not be able to be the Capitals' second-line center and that, considering how much he faded down the stretch, there were better, young options for a third-line center. At age 35, Morrison would be closer to regression than improvement, I thought.

As I've been writing my 30-in-30 season preview series, though, I've been finding that Brendan Morrison might actually have been underrated. It is very time consuming to delve into the advanced stats available at Behind the Net and Time on Ice to get a sense of a player and then compare that player to others, and since Morrison's decline in goals and points per game as the season went along correlated nicely with the sense of Morrison's play many Caps fans were getting based on watching the games, a closer look at Morrison seemed unnecessary. I guess this is why Morrison hasn't been given a "microstatic look" (as called by the authors of the Copper and Blue).

First, Morrison's season-long averages: 5-on-5 stats, Corsi, Zonestarts, penalties, blocked shots, shooting. I've listed statistics I think are relevant, with positives in bold:
Corsi Rel: -4.4
Corsi Rel QoC: 0.298, behind Eric Belanger, Tomas Fleischmann, David Steckel, and Brooks Laich among Caps centers (a liberal definition)
Corsi Rel QoT: -1.152, behind Nicklas Backstrom and Brooks Laich among centers.
Most frequent linemates: Jason Chimera and Eric Fehr (18%), Brooks Laich and Alexander Semin (12%), Mike Knuble and Brooks Laich (12%). Those first two combinations, as expected, were Morrison's most productive.
On-ice Shooting pct: 10.7%, only ahead of Steckel, Perreault, and Belanger
On-ice Save pct: 94.3%, first
PDO: 105.1%, first
+/-ON60: 1.63, a distant second. He got there with his 1.82 GAON/60, second to Steckel
Zonestart: a favorable 54.0%, only behind Backstrom and Perreault
Zonefinish: 51.1%, behind the same two players
Penalties drawn per 60: 0.7, behind Perreault (who led the entire team, 2.4 to 1.4 in second!), Backstrom, and Laich
Penalties taken per 60: 1.0, tied with Eric Belanger for first among Caps centers

At this point, it looks like Morrison was playing way over his true talent. So were the other Caps, though, so I'm not sure how big of a deal this is. He certainly looks like a player capable of filling in at 2C but not as a permanent fix.

Now, I'll examine the concern that Brendan Morrison faded down the stretch. I think I'm using the December 26 game against New Jersey (ID for Timeonice is 20560) as a convenient separator (Note: I can't get exact numbers for you since I'm getting no results on this link. I looked this stuff up previously, so I'll go off of memory).

(Note again: Time On Ice seems to be working again. Here are Morrison's season totals)

Morrison Fenwick% before December 26: ~48.5% 47.9% with Corsi% 49.7% (via Timeonice)
Morrison Fenwick% after December 26: ~51.5%  51.0% with Corsi% 53.0% (via Timeonice)

Wait, what? His Fenwick% and Corsi% got better after that game? I can't say that I expected that.

While this could could be just a result of him getting more 3rd line ice time and thus easier competition, he still did get on the better side of things in terms of shots, but his goal and point rates just fell off a cliff. That's probably just a normal or cold streak following a hot streak to start the season. Via his game log, his shots, goals, and shooting percentage before and after that NJD game (numbers are beginning of season to Dec 26, inclusive, then Dec 26 to end of regular season, exclusive):

Before Dec 26: 38 GP, 10-15-25, 58 shots ---> 0.26 g/gm, 0.66 pts/gm, 1.53 shots/gm, 17% shooting
After Dec 26: 36 GP, 2-15-17, 47 shots ---> 0.06 g/gm, 0.47 pts/gm, 1.31 shots/gm, 4% shooting
Playoffs: 5 GP, 0-1-1, 6 shots ---> 0 g/gm, 0.2 pts/gm, 0.2 shots/gm, 0% shooting

According to Time on Ice, his on-ice team shooting percentage at 5-on-5 fell from 10% to 9.7% and his on-ice 5-on-5 save percentage fell from .950 (!!!) to .929. I suspect that dropoff in sheer quantity of shots led to this offensive decline, rather than actually playing worse. But quick math shows that at 5-on-5 his linemates and he were putting 6.55 shots on net per game before the NJD game and 6.88 afterwards.

It's hard to avoid noticing how many times he went pointless, too: 18 times in 38 before Dec 26, then 22 times in 36 games afterwards (and another four times in the playoffs).

Was their something wrong physically? Maybe it will show up in "toughness" stats totals:

Before Dec 26: 15 hits, 12 blocked shots
After Dec 26: 18 hits, 19 blocked shots
Playoffs: N/A (or is that zero?)

Okay, so he had more hits and blocked shots in fewer games after he "went cold." I guess the explanation is that he was getting lucky more often than not on the power play beforehand, and no luck at all after December 26.

In short, it looks to me like Brendan Morrison is too good to be "only" a soft-minutes 3rd line center, but not quite good and consistent enough to be a full-time second-line center on a good team. What he can do is center a productive, talented third line. Considering that, at the time, Eric Belanger, Mathieu Perreault, and Marcus Johansson were all on the Caps' radar for the third line center spot, and that Perreault and Johansson are very viable possibilities for that spot right now, I guess the Capitals were right to let him go after all. As for Vancouver, if they want Manny Malhotra on the fourth line, Morrison could make a good 3C for the Canucks.

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