I’m going to go ahead and call out my fellow TLN writers (except for Jeffler, who’s more of a Canucks writer anyway, lol) for ranking Connor Brown too low. I had Brown as the Toronto Maple Leafs’ fourth best prospect, while all of the other voters (except Jeff) did not. They are all wrong.
In last year’s midterm ranking, Brown sat in the #4 spot (while I ranked him third). With no major prospect graduations, a great 2015 draft and a Phil Kessel trade since those rankings took place, it was to be expected that Brown could be pushed down a few spots through no fault of his know. But to drop all the way down to eight is insane and unjust. Maybe I am too bullish on Brown, but I think I have good reason.
Brown did pretty much everything we could have asked for in his first pro season. A certified star player for the OHL Erie Otters prior, Brown burst onto the AHL scene with 21 goals and 61 points in 76 games, leading the Toronto Marlies (and all AHL rookies) in scoring. Brown was also named to the AHL All-Rookie team and represented the Marlies and the Western Conference at the 2015 AHL All-Star Game.
It’s clear that Brown’s offensive game didn’t suffer the jump to professional hockey, but it was even more surprising to see his lesser known defensive game translate as well.
From the always fantastic KyleTheReporter.com…
According to [Marlies Head Coach Gord] Dineen, what’s been most impressive isn’t what he’s been doing in the offensive end of the ice but how he’s been able to improve other aspects of his game in the other two zones.
“He’s been defensively responsible, plays a complete game and is a guy that’s so easy to coach,” said Dineen. “If anything you have to reign him back. That’s a credit to him for his desire to be a better hockey player.”
We’re a few years out from Brown being drafted by the Leafs, so the regular suspects and their draft scouting reports don’t really apply anymore. Luckily, Brown was recently ranked as the Leafs’ 5th best prospect by ESPN’s Corey Pronman and the 72nd best prospect in the entire NHL. Here’s Pronman’s great write-up… [Paywall]
Brown was one of the top rookies in the AHL this season, putting up big scoring numbers while also logging minutes in defensive situations. He’s a very smart two-way forward with above-average skill whose skating looked a lot more impressive when I saw him live this season as opposed to last season in the OHL. Brown isn’t a blow-you-away dynamic skill player, but he is talented and with that base, plus his character and hockey IQ, he could end up a quality NHL player.
The part about skating in particular is really interesting, as it has long been the biggest knock on Brown’s game. If he’s skating better than he was in junior, where he was often described as average and maybe even awkward, the rest of his game is good enough that Brown projects as a offensive-minded second line guy. Despite being listed as 5’11 and 170lbs, Brown doesn’t move around as quickly as a lot of other undersized players do. You can live with lack of top-end speed if he at least makes his way around the ice efficiently.
The Road Ahead
While we can be really happy with his progression so far, it’s important to not get carried away. Brown should spend all of next season with the Marlies again, as the Leafs are loaded up with average but established NHL players up front. Brown will certainly get more out of sticking with a shockingly young Marlies roster and pushing for a deep playoff run than he would battling for bottom-six ice time on a bad NHL team.
And with all due respect to the last year’s roster, Brown should be returning to a much more talented one this season at Ricoh. A potential top line of Kapanen-Nylander-Brown is drool-worthy, though it’s likely that the youth and skill will be spread out a bit.
Eighth best prospect? I highly disagree, but am willing to admit that Toronto’s second tier of prospects are all very nice pieces that offer different things. For my fellow writers to value similarly talented players over Brown, I can understand that. They’re still wrong, but I understand. Only a handful of votes separated Brown from four players ranked ahead of him, so this very easily could have gone a very different way. I suppose it’s a good problem to have.