After decades of promising to build from within, the Kings have finally stuck with it and flourished under GM Dean Lombardi. Among the many changes made to the team’s infrastructure in the months following the Massachusetts native coming to Los Angeles was to hire a former college coach to take over behind the bench of the team’s AHL affiliate in Manchester.
Enter Mark Morris. Already with more than 300 wins under his belt at Clarkson University, Morris had most recently spent time in various assistant coaching roles in both the NHL and OHL. When the Kings first won the Stanley Cup in 2012, there was no denying the team’s ties to the Monarchs, where Morris had helped develop Dwight King, Trevor Lewis, Alec Martinez, Jordan Nolan, and Slava Voynov.
Over his eight year stint with the Monarchs, Morris went on to win another 300-plus games, becoming the first coach in history to achieve the 300-300 double. When the Kings won the Cup again last season, several more of his previous players – Martin Jones, Jake Muzzin, Tanner Pearson, and Tyler Toffoli – had graduated to the big club and aided in the team’s second championship.
Upon Morris’ return to Los Angeles this week, now as a member of the Florida Panthers coaching staff, he made sure to stop by MayorsManor for a fresh batch of his fun-loving banter, as well as keen insight into the skills of young players.
For starters, we had to know, who was his favorite, Tyler or Tanner?
“That’s not a fair question,” he said with a huge laugh. “They’re both great players and I think the beauty of it is, the first day we put them together, there was instant chemistry. The speed combined with the finishing ability creates a monster for whoever they’re playing against. I enjoy watching them. I don’t know if I’d like playing against them, but they certainly made life easier for us.”
Longtime readers of MayorsManor know that we were high on Muzzin long before he came to the NHL. We only point that out because it reminds us a lot of the current situation with Brayden McNabb, another player that Morris coached, albeit only for a few months at the end of last season. They might be different players, but does he see in similarities into what could be a situation where fans will only come to appreciate them in the years to come?
“Guys have strengths and weaknesses and often times, some of their most glaring things are habits that they’ve just ingrained in their game,” Morris explained, echoing what many in the Kings organization have said privately, that they’ve had to reprogram the young blueliner since he arrived via trade from Buffalo.
“I think that the thing I noticed [with him] early on was that it almost seemed like it was an all or nothing play when he was defending,” Morris continued. “Having watched video of him recently, it looks like he’s really settled some things down. Credit to John [Stevens, Kings assistant coach] for having that ability and Daryl [Sutter] and Davis [Payne] for working with him and helping him become that really reliable defender. I saw him lay a few big hits on those Anaheim Ducks [last week]. So, obviously his angling and his timing is real sharp. I think as he gets more acclimated to the speed of the NHL, he’s really going to have a lot of youthful, exuberant strength. He has real sure hands for a guy. He gets puck through to the net on a regular basis, or he did at the American League level that I recall. So, yeah, I can see that he has made big strides since I had him last season.”
Does he recall Muzzin experiencing some of those same challenges during his AHL days?
“Yeah, I think in some ways,” Morris remarked. “Brayden may be a little bit more confident. I think Jake had moments where he was kind of hearing a lot of voices. Everyone wanted to help him and I think it was really confusing for him. I recall one situation where we were out on the ice – myself, along with the development staff and management – and everyone was in his ear. He was shaking his head on the ice saying, ‘I just need some space.’ At that point in time, I said ‘Just play’ and he started to and you could see his game start coming around… Sometimes [these kids] are good players in their own right, then all of a sudden, they’re trying to please everybody and it just confuses them more. Watching Jake develop, along with his strong friendship with Doughty, there just seems to be that chemistry and comfort level that really created a real good situation for him.”
The myriad of players who made it to LA after spending time with Morris were a collection of high draft picks, low draft picks, free agent signings – basically, all types of players. Which one surprised him the most, in terms of their development, from the time they first arrived in Manchester?
“You know, Trevor Lewis was probably that guy, if I look at him now,” Morris said without hesitation. “In the early going, he kind of struggled. But, steadily, and on a regular basis, you just saw the effort and the constant contributions that he would make. Little by little, he got more and more responsibility and it really paid dividends. When I watch him play, maybe he’s not the most prolific scorer out there, but subtly, he makes a real big difference in a hockey game.”
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