When it comes to player evaluation in hockey, one of the hardest things to do is separate a player’s performance from their role. There are plenty of top-six players whose numbers are floated by superior linemates and a preponderance of power-play time, while others languish in third or fourth line roles despite the capacity to do more.
All over the NHL there are debates over who deserves how much ice with whom, and it’s hard to know the truth of a player’s talent unless they’ve been given a shot in a prominent role. After moving from the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Ottawa Senators in the offseason, Connor Brown is an interesting case study for how a player rises to the challenge of more demanding usage.
Last season, Brown often plied his trade on the fourth line with the Maple Leafs, juicing his ice time slightly with a heavy helping of penalty killing work, but still averaging just 13:48 a night. He was a favourite of coach Mike Babcock, and while he was considered a guy who was overqualified for the part he had to play, there was no need to force him up the lineup. Brown never seemed to hurt his team, but it was hard to describe him as a difference maker when he scored eight goals and tallied 29 points.
Because of his $2.1 million salary, the Maple Leafs figured he was a luxury they couldn’t afford in the offseason, but where they saw a bit player on the overpaid side, the Senators saw a guy who could shoulder a major role and look like a bargain at that price. So far, that assessment has been absolutely on the money.
Through 11 games, Brown leads his team’s forward corps in the following categories:
Ice Time (20:27)
Point Shares (1.0)
Expected Plus/Minus (+1.1)
Relative Corsi (8.3)
The number that stands out the most there is the raw ice time, which is 15th among forwards league-wide right between Tyler Seguin and Gabriel Landeskog — and significantly higher than Maple Leafs stars like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. That’s an indication that he has earned, and retained, an extraordinary amount of trust from Senators coach D.J. Smith.
Brown’s possession numbers are impressive too, especially within the context of a pretty awful hockey team. There is an element of luck with the points and assists due to an inflated on-ice shooting percentage of 15.2, but his own shooting percentage is a ridiculously-low 4.3, so that will even out to some extent.
When Brown is at his best he combines his tenacity as a forechecker with the skill that made him the OHL’s leading scorer in 2013-14 (though to be fair, being on Connor McDavid’s wing helped there). A lot of the playmaking he’s shown this season has demonstrated that trademark combination of hard work and finesse.
For instance, you’re not going to see many better assists than this one Brown managed taking on two Vegas Golden Knights and adeptly finding Tyler Ennis on the way to a Jean-Gabriel Pageau goal.
Similarly, one of his prettier assists came thanks to his own forechecking and the ability to apply pressure on the forecheck and find Artem Anisimov on the tape from the corner.
These are classic Connor Brown plays. When you employ him on your team this is what you hope he’ll provide — a grinder mentality with just a little more skill than a lot of bottom-six guys bring to the table. When the 25-year-old worked alongside Matthews on the Maple Leafs’ first line at times in his rookie season, he paired with Zach Hyman as a couple of puck retrievers feeding the sniper whenever possible.
Where Brown has surprised this season is with plays that show off a little more explosiveness and the kind of playmaking chops he rarely flashed in Toronto, where he never topped 21 assists in a season. The type of perfect backhand saucer pass he fed Pageau on Sunday against the San Jose Sharks, for example, probably won’t look too familiar to Maple Leafs fans.
Nor will Brown picking the pocket of a veteran defenceman like Braydon Coburn and playing a two-on-one perfectly to set up Vladislav Namestnikov for a game-winning tap in.
It’s still early days, and predicting some kind of profound breakout for Brown would be premature. What we are seeing is that the former Maple Leaf is thriving in a larger role, not shrinking away from it. Both basic and advanced statistics, as well as a highlight reel full of nifty plays, indicate he’s doing a heck of a job.
The fact that he’s logging ice time like he’s a superstar is more of a function of his lacklustre teammates — and a coach who’s familiar with him from his time in Toronto — than his own merits, but there’s no doubt he’s risen to the challenge that being a part of the Senators’ core has presented.
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