The Toronto Maple Leafs have struggled to get offence from the back end throughout their season. Dion Phaneuf has had a stellar defensive season, but is putting up some of his worst even strength numbers in his career. Cody Franson, who has been quietly been one of the league’s premier offensive threats on the point since coming into the league, has fallen flat. Morgan Rielly still has a habit of looking like the teenager that he is, and while Jake Gardiner is having a better year offensively than last year, it’s a slight improvement on a disastrous shortened 2013 season. Paul Ranger is the Leafs’ best offensive defenceman at the moment (ES points per 60 minutes), which speaks for itself.
We can argue why all these things are what they are until the cows come home. Maybe the Leafs picked the wrong players? Maybe Randy Carlyle is using them incorrectly? Maybe it doesn’t matter how often they make offence, as long as they prevent.. never mind.
But what if I told you that down the street, there was the polar opposite? An moderately young offensive defenceman so dominant, that he may just be the biggest impact player in professional hockey right now, on a relative scale?
Enter T.J. Brennan.
That name sounds familiar…
If you’ve been reading my Toronto Marlies recaps this season, that’s because he seems to be mentioned in every six lines. If you haven’t, it’s likely because you remember seeing him from the preseason. Signed immediately at the start of Free Agency this July, Brennan played a couple of preseason games with the Leafs as “that guy with the hard shot that lands on net” before being assigned to the Marlies to begin the year.
Prior to that, Brennan taken 31st overall by the Buffalo Sabres in 2007. Not originally a Sabres pick, the draft pick was acquired from Philadelphia in the trade deadline offloading of backup Martin Biron. As such, expectations were high, especially after an impressive 41 point rookie season for the St. John’s Fog Devils.
But two extra years in junior showed little in offensive growth. He joined the Portland Pirates once he was of age, and slowly but surely rounded out his offensive game at the professional level. He earned a call up in 2011/12, but only scored a single goal in eleven games.
Brennan was one of the players who benefited immensely from the 2012 lockout, giving him another half season to prove himself, as he scored at just under a point per game pace over 36 games. But again, he struggled in Buffalo, with a single goal in ten games. Brennan was moved to Florida for a 5th round draft pick, where he earned himself 9 points in 19 games. His rights were traded to Nashville after the season for Bobby Butler, and he became a UFA in July. Which brings us to today.
What’s his role?
Brennan was placed on an even strength defensive pairing with Stuart Percy to start the season, and has spent almost all his time until very recently with him. Currently, he plays with Kevin Marshall. Both pairings are scenarios where Steve Spott has given Brennan a stay-at-home defender to collaborate with, allowing him to pinch when necessary.
On the powerplay, Brennan frequently played with John-Michael Liles before his return to the National Hockey League. Now, his go-to point man is Spencer Abbott, a natural right winger but a gifted playmaker. Abbott moved into Liles’ spot because he’s the best at executing Toronto’s killer strategy; pass it to Brennan and watch good things happen.
But what has he done?
Brennan’s dominance of the stat sheet is somewhere in between “stolen from NHL 14 Live The Life Mode” and “someone is trying to parody Chuck Norris Facts”, to put it lightly.
The mark of a dominant forward is producing shot volume for his team. Here are some star NHL forwards, and the percentage of their team’s shots that they take.
|James van Riemsdyk||197||1667||11.8|
Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk take over a quarter of the Leafs’ shots and that’s scary. The team needs more distributed offence. But the main point; Brennan’s dominance over the Marlies offence as a defenceman is that of a superstar forward!
Not only is Brennan taking 12.3% of his team’s shots, his team-leading 20 goals account for 14.3% of the team’s this season, and his 51 points mean he’s contributed to an absurd 36.7% of them. How absurd is that? Bobby Orr contributed to 34.8% of Boston’s goals in the season he produced 139 points. By no means is Brennan close to the greatest defenceman of all time, but it gives a bit of perspective on the impact he has on this roster.
The distribution of these shots has been rather consistent as well.
Shots Per Game
|0 SH||1 SH||2 SH||3 SH||4 SH||5 SH||6 SH||8 SH|
Percentage of Marlies Shots
That’s at least 3 shots for in 75% of his games played, That’s a shot in 47 of 48 games (the one game where he was ‘contained’, he had two assists). That’s elite forward-level control of his team’s game on most nights, all from the back end.
As for the points, he’s got 51 in 50 games. That’s more points than he’s ever had in a season of playing high-level hockey, including playoffs and playing in multiple leagues. That’s already several points ahead of the Marlies’ single-season record for a defenceman. Most importantly, it’s good for 4th in points and T-7th in goals in the American Hockey League.
Here’s how his point production breaks down:
|0 Points||1 Point||2 Points||3 Points||4 Points|
Not often do you consider a defenceman the standout player on a given night, but these multi-point performances has had him named first star on six occasions this season.
His bread and butter is the powerplay. While originally a concern for the Marlies, given their lack of scoring forwards, Brennan has been the straw that stirs the drink for this special teams unit, lifting them to 6th in the league and their highest percentage (20.2%) in half a decade. Brennan has points on 65.3% of Toronto’s powerplay goals (personally scoring 20.4%), and has been on the ice for 79.5% of them.
Having Liles, and now Abbott on the point with him is effective in making opponents second guess Toronto’s potential options, usually leaving him open to do as he pleases once he gets the puck. Every so often, a team will try to swarm him, leading to the rest of the unit having much more room to work with.
His production has padded the stats of and helped out his teammates as well. Eighteen players on the roster have had at least 20% of their points come from goals where Brennan also has a point. Leading forward scorer Spencer Abbott has Brennan’s involvement in 32% of his points. Stuart Percy has 41.6%. Even new addition Brandon Kozun, who has flown out of the gate with 9 points in his first 9 games, has Brennan contributing on five of those plays.
So, why isn’t he in the NHL?
This is the burning question. There’s a variety of factors that are preventing him from making the jump right now, but two are particularly important.
The first is a reputation as an offense-first defenceman. This isn’t particularly a bad thing, unless you have the “liability” tag attached, which Brennan has at the moment. Watching him play against the Marlies for Rochester in the past, and watching him play this season, he does appear to have improved. He’s quicker to get back after pinching, is a bit smarter from a positional standpoint than he has been before, and appears to be using his body more as well.
Spott has trusted Brennan with occasional penalty killing minutes, and while he gets burned from time to time, such mistakes are becoming less frequent as time progresses. Plus/Minus is a stat I avoid in the NHL, but with limited AHL stats to work with, it’s worth nothing that despite his -1 on the season, he’s positive on more nights than he is negative.
With that said, even if he was the liability he was in prior years, his offensive game should more than offset it at the NHL level. So, why no call up?
It’s not very complicated. Brennan is not exempt from waivers. As such, any jump would have to be “to stay”, or risk losing him for nothing via the waiver process. The Leafs have a pile of NHL-quality defencemen up top, even if some of them appear to have stone hands offensively this year. To bring Brennan up would require long term injuries, or at least one get traded.
At that point, the Leafs have three options. Do you take a risk and call him up, do you trade him for minimal assets, or do you keep him on the Marlies to ensure your prospects do well?
For them, it’s a no brainer. Without Brennan, the team goes from first in the division, to potentially out of the playoff picture. If the prospects surrounding him can learn a few things offensively, while getting more games in come playoff time, it’s probably worth more to you than a mid-late round pick. If your team makes power moves and ships out some defencemen to upgrade (either other positions, or quantity for quality), then you have a viable option waiting for you.
If I’m the GM on another NHL team, though? I’m definitely inquiring about him, especially if I lack offence and have a responsible partner to play him with. It may be the AHL, but he’s just been too dominant to ignore the potential to be a quality offensive defenceman. Worst case scenario, you pick up a Marc-Andre Bergeron type of player, with much more gas in the tank.
In the meantime, Brennan will continue peppering goaltenders with blistering slapshots from long range, winning his team a couple games in the process. You’ll be able to catch him next on the AHL All Star team as they take on Farjestads BK on February 12th.
Photo courtesy of Christian Bonin / TSGPhoto.com