Flyers' top pick a work in progress

YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Defenseman Samuel Morin made a favorable impression during the preseason with the Flyers.
YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Defenseman Samuel Morin made a favorable impression during the preseason with the Flyers.
Posted: February 26, 2014

First of two parts.

SHERBROOKE, Quebec - Samuel Morin left Philadelphia in September and boarded a plane home to Quebec with a smile on his face.

In two exhibition games with the Flyers, Morin played more minutes (45:36) than any player on the team. He assisted on Vinny Lecavalier's first-ever goal in a Flyers uniform. He signed his first professional contract, which could ultimately earn him up to $4.3 million if everything goes according to plan.

Morin, 18, checked off all the goals on his list, capping off a wild summer that saw him drafted by the Flyers at 11th overall, higher than most if not all projections.

But the euphoria from those 4 months collided with reality when he arrived back in Rimouski, Quebec, where he plays for the Quebec Major Junior League's Oceanic.

That's because no move Morin made with the Flyers went unnoticed throughout the Quebec league.

Even if his 6-7 frame is hard to miss on the ice, his high draft status and head-turning poise in two preseason tests centered a bull's-eye on Morin's back.

"When you come back from the 'Show,' it's always tough to manage for an 18-year-old guy," said Morin's coach, Serge Beausoleil. "We had to talk with him, especially about the mental side. Everyone wants to beat him. Guys are [hacking] him. They're chirping him. It's not easy to come back here."

For Morin, returning to Quebec - where "oohing'' and "ahhing'' fans cheer by smashing folded-up lineup cards together as noisemakers - was where the real work began. The hockey in Quebec, with more skill and speed and less size, is incredibly different.

The Daily News traveled to Quebec last weekend to watch the man the Flyers hope to groom into the anchor of their blue line. A trip to cozy Blainville-Boisbriand, a suburb of Montreal, Friday night and 115 miles west to Sherbrooke on Saturday afternoon offered a nice cross section of competition between the best and worst teams in the QMJHL.

What Morin revealed in a small sample were flashes of brilliance in a rare physical specimen, but also typical growing pains that signify his road to a spot in the NHL may not be a short one.

Right now, playing for the Oceanic, Morin may not even be the most complete defenseman on his own team. He is a project; but that is not news to the Flyers, who drafted Morin based on his potential and not his current play.

"It's been an up-and-down season," Morin said. "I think I've improved a lot. I think I'm still developing, too. It was tough coming here at the beginning of the year, playing at a lower level, because it's high emotions. I've still improved myself since the beginning of the year."

When he was drafted, Morin himself (and scouts) compared him to Chris Pronger. In some ways, the comparison works. At 18, Morin is already 1 inch taller and 6 pounds heavier (216) than Pronger.

Morin has the snarl and bloodthirstiness that made opponents fear Pronger. He cross-checks, hacks and clears the front of his net with ease. He is stingy giving up the blue line. With his reach and mobility for a big man, few players in that league can get around him on the rush.

But that is probably where the unfair comparisons to Pronger end - since the future Hall of Famer was a fulltime NHL player at Morin's age.

Morin is already a skilled shutdown defender in his own zone. He killed all 2 minutes of a 5-on-3 power play in a tense third period in Blainville-Boisbriand with ease on Friday night. He was out on the ice in the final minute to close out Rimouski's eighth straight win on Saturday.

His game, a true work in progress, is not comprehensive. Morin can impress with an aggressive pinch from the point, but he also lacks a clean and consistent breakout pass that the Flyers so crave. Morin has set career highs in goals (seven), assists (20) and points (27), but his offensive instinct is only just piquing. His numbers increased (seven points in six games) when teammate Jan Kostalek's departure for the World Junior Championships opened up a spot on the top power-play unit.

"I would say that he has improved probably 50 percent since last year," said Flyers scout Simon Nolet, who has seen Morin play five times in the last month. "Half the time, he is a man playing against boys. The other half, he is over-aggressive and gets pissed off with the little guy that hits him in the back."

Morin has struggled to "stay centered," as Beausoleil described it. He was suspended for two games last month and fined $250 for smashing his stick and throwing the remnants over the glass, which hit a man in a wheelchair leaving the arena.

Flyers director of scouting Chris Pryor said "at least Morin isn't one of those guys you have to drag the emotion and fire out of." That ferocity on the ice, coupled with a happy-go-lucky personality off it, has earned him an "A" on his jersey as alternate captain.

"I think the most important thing for him is to be in control of every situation," Beausoleil said. "He's very serious. He has good focus. I think he can be an all-around defenseman. He can play good defensively and be good around his net, and then contribute offensively. He doesn't use [his offense] as much as he can. He wants to do his best, but he has to resist the tendency to do too much."

The Flyers have sent player development coach and 1992 Stanley Cup winner Kjell Samuelsson to Rimouski to work with Morin for days at a time. Roughly the same height, Morin said, "I think Kjell understands me."

Samuelsson, speaking via phone from Sweden, reminded to not get too caught up in the fact that Morin doesn't dominate every game with the puck glued to his stick like you think a top pick might. Morin's development, even with nine games left in his third junior season, is only in it's infancy.

"Only a few guys can get away with complicating the game," Samuelsson said. "He has a lot of talent. He has made a lot of progress this year. There's been games I've been to where he wins every battle he's involved in. But to ask the consistency of an NHL veteran when he is 18 years old? That's impossible. He will be judged on how many battles he wins."

Tomorrow: A look at Morin from the perspective of scouts and coaches outside the Flyers' organization.


On Twitter: @DNFlyers

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