How is it that a hockey player is excited to be traded away from his friends, his home, and a potential Stanley Cup champion team? The answer for the Ottawa Senators’ Connor Brown is that he wants to play and he now has the chance to do so.
Brown is one of four ex-Maple Leafs players who were part of the multi-talented Toronto team, but who currently play with the Senators. And Ottawa Senators’ general manager Pierre Dorion is happy to have them all – especially Brown. The other new Senators (via Toronto) include defensemen Nikita Zaitsev, the uber-experienced Ron Hainsey, and fill-in-anywhere forward Tyler Ennis.
Having a group of friends and continuing teammates around him offers Brown an extra measure of familiarity with his new team. Brown immediately felt comfortable joining his new team. In addition, new Ottawa head coach DJ Smith, who came to know Brown’s work on the ice first-hand as an assistant with the Maple Leafs, is a huge Brown fan.
How’s Brown Fitting In?
So far Brown is fitting in and loving it. He simply got caught in the numbers in Toronto and, given the Maple Leafs odd salary-cap situation, even his team-friendly contract of $2.1 million became a problem and had to be moved. (He becomes a restricted free agent after this season.)
Although he scored 20 goals during his rookie season (2016-17), his ice time and offensive role kept shrinking – he moved from 20 goals in his first season, to 14 goals in his second, to eight last season. Part of those changes came because he became coach Mike Babcock’s most reliable checkers and penalty killers and wasn’t used in offensive situations.
Although there’s nothing in Brown’s personality that suggests he wouldn’t have continued in those roles, Brown told Sporting News that he’s happy for more playing time with the Senators: “I don’t know if it’s a fresh start, so to speak – hopefully, an expanded role, get that confidence back offensively.”
That simply wasn’t going to happen in Toronto, not with the likes of a line-up that included Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares, Kasperi Kapanen, and the list goes on. No wonder Brown was pushed into the bottom six. The upside is that he became a better two-way player.
There’s no doubt the 25-year-old Brown has the chance of his career because he will be assuming a larger offensive role with his new team. During the preseason, he’s become part of the Senators first-line partnership with 20-year-old Brady Tkachuk (Keith’s son) and 22-year-old center Colin White. That’s a Senators’ youth movement, which makes Brown the elder statesman on that group.
Coach Smith has given Brown a myriad of chances this preseason. In his first preseason game, Brown led all Senators with a game-high 20:42 of playing time, and he played in all situations – from the power play to the penalty kill. He scored a goal and an assist. So far, in three preseason games, he has two goals and two assists for four points.
Smith reported, about Brown: “He’s the conscience of the line … He’s a guy that knows how to play, can track, he works, block shots. He does a bit of everything. I’d like him to get his offensive touch back. He had 20 goals a few years ago. We’d like to see him get back to that.” If Brown stays in a top-line forward position, I personally believe he can score 25 goals.
Tkachuk enjoys playing with Brown, noting, “He’s a great player. He always works hard to get the puck back. I hope we stay together through the preseason and regular season, too.”
And, Brown likes playing with Tkachuk and White. Brown added, “I think we’re feeling each other out. We’ve played together in scrimmage. I think we’re getting better and better. We enjoy playing together, which is a big thing. It’s a good start.”
What’s the Prognosis This Season?
Although all three are young, and the Senators are not projected to have a rebuilding season, Brown personally should grow and develop further as he takes advantage of expanded roles. He once led the OHL in scoring (128 points in 2014) and potted 20 during his rookie season, so he’s likely to have more offensive upside than he’s shown during the last two seasons with the Maple Leafs.
General manager Dorion said about Brown: “He’s a key part in the deal for us.”
I, for one, am rooting for him to have a breakout season. If his streak of never missing a game in three NHL seasons continues, there’s every opportunity that breakout season is waiting to happen. He’s not likely to score 128 points; however, he’ll likely score 20 goals again – and easily.
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