Hope everyone is having a good holiday weekend. It’s hard to beat sleeping in on a Monday morning. But to get back into the swing of things, here’s an interview Don just did with Mark Morris, coach of the AHL Manchester Monarchs. In the interview, Mark gives some perspective on the season and what it’s like to coach at the highest minor-league level. It’s another great interview by Don with an interesting subject…
When we last spoke to Manchester Monarchs coach Mark Morris, he was 12 hours removed from his team being bounced out of the AHL playoffs. He was weary, a little emotional, and certainly far from satisfied. The Monarchs had to rely on a nice stretch of play towards the end of the regular season just to qualify for the post season, only to lose center Brian Boyle to a season-ending knee injury. Then their reward for making the playoffs was to take on the league’s top team, the Providence Bruins.
With the benefit of a little time, rest and healing, Morris took a few minutes to discuss the Monarchs’ season and had some interesting things to say about how his young team persevered during some difficult times. Coach Morris, who along with assistant coach Scott Pellerin recently signed a one year contract extension with Manchester, discussed some about his personal aspirations for the future, and even had some nice things to say about everyone’s favorite whipping boy, Dan Cloutier.
Q&A: Manchester coach Mark Morris
Question: When last we spoke, the playoffs had just ended with a disappointing outcome. With the benefit of a little time to heal, how do you think the season went overall?
Morris: Well as I look at the season, there is kind of a bittersweet taste that I have regarding the season knowing that we were very competitive against the teams that were left in the final round of the playoffs. Knowing that we could still be right there and likely go head-to-head with them gives me some sense of incompleteness I guess you could say. We wish we could have gone farther, and on the flipside, knowing how inexperienced we were and to get this team into playoff position gives me a sense of accomplishment as well.
Question: Talk a little about that inexperience. There were 17 rookies on your roster; how did that impact your approach to each game on a nightly basis?
Morris: Every night was an adventure. It seemed as though there were nights where we could be very good and certain players would excel, and then there would be games, or even just during the course of a game we could go from being rock solid to being very fragile. I think that was a big challenge for us as a staff – to accept the flaws and the lack of playing experience up against the caliber of players and teams that we were competing against night after night.
Question: What does that do to you and the staff from a game plan perspective?
Morris: You have to think on your feet. Luckily for me we have a really tight staff, and I got great feedback from my assistant coach Scott Pellerin and from Hubie McDonough. Both guys are very open and I am very accepting of their viewpoints and I think a lot of times we made the right decisions concerning what systems to use and where we were at as a team in terms of personnel and the execution of our game plan.
Question: Tell me a little about some surprises during the year, whether it be individuals or certain elements of the game.
Morris: I don’t know if it was a surprise, but it was a pleasant one if it was, as we maintained one of the best power plays in the American Hockey League and a big part of that was the play of Teddy Purcell and Brian Boyle, Matt Moulson, Peter Harrold. Gabe Gauthier played on that periodically, as did Troy Milam. Each of those guys on our first power play unit contributed in big ways. They continued to produce goals on nights when we had difficulty scoring in the five-on-five. Teams in the early part of the season were beating us when they were able to shut us down on the power play, but there weren’t too many nights when we were not effective. Those guys did a tremendous job for us.
Question: Any other areas of pleasant surprise?
Morris: I think we have very few hiccups with our goaltending. Our goaltending, no matter who it was, played exceptionally well for us. I guess that was a pleasant surprise for us. Guys like Danny Taylor, who didn’t even have a place to play at the start of the season, we just kept him around so that he could stay sharp until there was an opening, and then lo and behold we end up putting him in net and he ends up having a great stretch and his confidence grew. He even got a chance to play in the National Hockey League. Erik Ersberg and Jon Quick both played well for us. Jonathan Bernier really played well for us. It was really good to see Dan Cloutier have an opportunity to get back into the National Hockey League. I know he really had a lot to battle through and it was really nice to see him resurface. I know it had to be tough on him to have to play in the minors. To see all of those guys play well for us is one of the reasons we were so competitive.
Question: On the flipside of the pleasant surprises, were there any specific disappointments from your perspective that kept this team from being more successful?
Morris: I think the realization that we have a long way to go with our defensive corps. There was a noticeable difference between us and the top teams on the back end. I think that we could have made better decisions defensively and could have done a much better job reading certain situations and playing grittier in front of our net, smarter and staying out of the penalty box. I think those are areas where this summer will be huge for us. If we are going to make improvements that is an area where we are going to have to spend a lot of time.
Question: Even with the depth issues on defense you managed to compete on a nightly basis.
Morris: We had sustained production from our top two lines pretty much every night and as the season progressed, we did get a little better, our transition game improved. A big reason that we got better is that our penalty kill got better. I think that we were one of the poorest teams on the PK, and I think one of the reasons was our slow reads and the inability to make adjustments. We just seemed to be a deer in headlights at times. Then toward the end of the season when we seemed to rack-up wins we just got better at the penalty kill and I credit Scott Pellerin for the work that he did with our young defensemen, getting them to make quicker reads and get their bodies into shot lanes, sticks in passing lanes.
Question: Speaking of coach Pellerin, congratulations to both of you for signing your recent contract extensions. I’m not sure if in your mind there was much doubt that you would be back.
Morris: I think every coach can appreciate a little security of knowing that you’re living up to the expectations of management, so I know we are both thrilled to be back for another year at Manchester. We have a good working relationship with all of the coaches in Los Angeles, so we have an appreciation for the things that they go through as a staff and the challenges that they face and I think that we all realize that it is a period of growth and you often wonder if you are going to see the fruits of all your hard work, so the extension was certainly a vote of confidence from the brass.
Question: How difficult is it for you to do that delicate balancing act of putting a winning team on the ice each night in Manchester knowing you could be sending key players to the big club and depleting your roster?
Morris: Well, after our second season working in the league, we gained an appreciation for the development aspect of our job. We also have an appreciation for the people that we play for in Manchester too. On many nights they may not understand why their favorite player is not in the lineup, who might have played there for the last couple of years and the truth be known, the powers that be want to see the up-and-coming players involved in important games and critical situations to determine where they are at and how far they have to come as players. There is a certain window of opportunity that every player has, and that window is like the aperture of a camera, it opens and closes pretty quick. When you have your chance you want to make the most of it. Some of the newcomers get the benefit of doubt and the Manchester fans have a difficult time when some of their old favorites have to sit.
Question: That has to be the ultimate test of coaching, as the team finally starts to get going and there goes Brian Boyle up to the Kings or you have to deal with multiple injuries.
Morris: Coming down the stretch after we finally made the playoffs, we were without two and ultimately three of our top centers. Brian Boyle and Gabe Gauthier went out with injuries, and then Matt Ryan. So there we are finally getting ourselves into a position to compete, to get in the playoffs, and you are trying to jockey people into different positions. There is no question that guys like Boyle and Gauthier are keys to our success. There aren’t too many 6-7, 240-pound centers sitting around ready to play and jump in and take on the roll that Brian played.
Question: What are your personal aspirations? Do you eventually see yourself coaching at the NHL level?
Morris: Only recently has that realization hit me. I was a college coach for 15 years and I think sometimes people in the pro game have little appreciation for all of the hats that you wore in the college game, I mean you were a jack of all trades, master of none. There’s a wealth of experience that you gain as a college coach, everything from planning your trips to budgeting – essentially you are a general manager. I still scratch my head some days and have a tough time accepting that in the eyes of certain people I am looked at as a newbie. I’m 50 years old. I know a lot of general managers and people around the National Hockey league just from my time in the college game. By circumstance I happen to end up coaching at a prep school for a short term, so in the eyes of certain people I’m a high school coach (laughs). For myself, having played pro hockey and been around the block a few times, it is more now a reality than it has ever been but at the same time I guess it has never been the ultimate goal but it would be awfully tough to turn down. It would be quite an honor to be able to stand behind an NHL bench and coach. I would relish that opportunity. Again it has never been the ultimate goal. I just love to teach.