The Toronto Marlies Should Give TJ Brennan A Hard Decision

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Photo Credit: Christian Bonin/TSGPhoto.com

According to a report from the Toronto Sun’s Lance Hornby, Toronto Marlies defenceman TJ Brennan has been offered a contract by a mystery team in the Kontinental Hockey League for next season. Hearing such news isn’t incredibly shocking, given his success, but it’s still something that the team will have to address in some way, shape, or form.

It’s generally accepted that competing with the KHL’s big chequebooks for “AAAA Talent” is a losing battle. But it doesn’t have to be if the team does it properly.

First off, we’ll get the obvious out of the way; the big chequebook theory definitely applies to Brennan’s deal. According to friend of the blog Aivis Kalnins, Brennan’s offer at hand is a 1-Year, $1.5 Million contract. This would be a steep raise from his $675,000 one-way deal with the Leafs this season; over double, as a matter of fact. 

I understand that when you hear “sign a regular AHL player to something close to a $1.5 million deal”, you immediately sprint over to your PDF of the Collective Bargaining Agreement and point out that such a contract would require the Leafs to pay a penalty of $550,000 in Salary Cap Burial. This would indeed be the case, assuming that the Leafs organisation was competing against another NHL team here.

But they aren’t. They’re competing with a KHL team. Once he’s there, he’s there for the year. Short of a mutual termination, that’s how the transfer agreements line up. With that in mind, what’s stopping them from offering him a large AHL deal?

The truth is, not very much. The American Hockey League doesn’t have a maximum salary, meaning that if the Leafs organisation sees him as a positive value to the developmental progress of the Marlies, but doesn’t see him playing with the Leafs, then they could absolutely make a competitive offer.

Certainly, he brings value to the team. Despite being a defenceman, Brennan has led the team in goals and points in both of his full seasons with the team (13/14 and 15/16). While his stick went cold in the playoffs, Brennan paired up with Justin Holl to create one of the league’s best pairings. Oh, and in both of those full seasons, he won the Eddie Shore Award as the league’s best defenceman.

There is the issue of him being a bit older than the rest of the group; he turned 27 in April. But that also works to his favour; he’s considered by many to be a positive presence in the locker room and is well liked in the community. Leadership skills earn the eye rolls of many new-schoolers when they’re the sole selling point of a player, but when that player is also an elite talent at your level, that’s not something you want to lose.

To give an idea of how important Brennan is to the team offensively, he took 7% of all of Toronto’s shots this year. This is coming from a defenceman, on a team that included forwards like William Nylander, Josh Leivo, Mark Arcobello, Matt Frattin, Brendan Leipsic and Nikita Soshnikov; all volume shooters at this level. His production typically stays stable, occasionally spiking from nights where he takes over and really only dipping in the final games of the year. 

Many will point to his defensive shortcomings, which are definitely noticeable at times, but they are grossly outweighed by the pros. AHL data is obviously about as easy to find as Stephane Robidas’ current location, but the visuals imply that he’s arguably the Marlies’ most dominant neutral-zone player, due to his ability to exit the defensive zone with control and get all the way across the ice to set up the play. The limited NHL data we do have on him shows a player that, though sheltered, has fewer shots given up than most thanks to his ability to keep the puck moving towards the opposing goalie. We can debate whether he should be an NHLer until the cows come home, but there’s no argument against him being a noticeable reason that the Toronto Marlies have been so good with him around in the past two and a half years.

As much as the team should primarily be focused on developing their youth, avoiding total emptiness is key too. This is something they learned last season when the team cratered to start the year and clawed back up on the backs of the signing of Bryon Froese and the trade-driven return of… the very same TJ Brennan. The Marlies will earn a few 20-year-olds and project signings next year, no doubt, but with Arcobello heading to Europe and the likes of Nylander, Soshnikov, Zach Hyman, and maybe others graduating to the Leafs full time, they’re going to need a few people to stick around and move the puck around like they’ve been there before.

That very well could be worth seven digits to the organization. At the end of the day, the Marlies aren’t exactly cash cows, and the Leafs would probably spend more on their roster if there wasn’t a salary cap. Signing a few of their veterans to deals that teams in other leagues, above or below, next door or across the pond wouldn’t be a bad thing; such an idea might (on a lower pricetag) fit the bill for fellow upcoming UFA Rich Clune as well. Sure, the AHL might not be too happy with setting a precedent of high-cost players, but if it’s one or two guys as a matter of retention and it means the Marlies can continue a precedent of getting playoff games on TSN, their concerns will probably fade pretty quickly.

It might also make more sense for Brennan to stay, even if the money is a bit less. As you all know by my constant screaming about a few particular players, I appreciate the KHL as a competitive, somewhat near-the-top league where a lot of overlooked, young European talent might be hiding in plain sight. But for a mid-20’s man from New Jersey who has spent most of the past three years of his life in Toronto, there’s a lot to learn by moving to Russia / Croatia / Latvia / Belarus / Finland / Kazakhstan / Slovakia (it’s a big league and we have no idea what team it is). Similarly, there’s a lot of costs involved in moving, well, halfway across the world, that might offset the slightly improved salary.

That’s if he gets his salary at all. North American players have historically had trouble getting these supposedly higher paycheques, particularly those on smaller clubs. Eight teams are considered to be in serious financial trouble and three others put their participation on hold this season. Unfortunately, not everyone is SKA, CSA, Magnitogorsk, or Jokerit, and that’s a huge plunge to take when your biggest incentive is money. This has been amplified in recent years with the crash of the ruble, which is part of the reason why even big names like Vadim Shipachev and former NHL star Alexander Radulov have tested the waters this summer.

Some may argue that the other incentive would be the success that some North Americans have had there. I suppose it depends on what you want out of your stay; if you’re there to prove yourself and come back, there isn’t much of a history of that working out. If Brennan is in it for the long haul, however, a career similar to Nick Bailen, Kevin Dallman, or Cam Barker might be attainable.

With all of that considered, I feel that a substantial AHL offer might be the best option for both worlds. Toronto signs a loss-leader contract, but in return gets to keep a player who has made the Marlies undeniably better in three consecutive seasons both on and off the ice. By making it an AHL deal, Toronto avoids burial cap penalties and also doesn’t use an SPC, though they’d have to sign him again to call him up if needed. As for Brennan, even $1 million would be a substantial raise with minimal financial risk and gets to stay somewhere where he genuinely enjoys his time and knows he’s able to succeed. In fact, by signing an AHL deal, he continues to make himself available to 30 NHL teams without having to beg for a mutual termination.

Certainly, a seven-figure minor league deal is a rarely exploited grey area that might raise some eyebrows across the hockey world. But since when has that stopped this rendition of Leafs management from doing something to flex their financial muscles?

  • silentbob

    Yes.

    I’ve been saying since the Marlies movied to Toronto that the Leafs should build a core of 5 or 6 good, veteran AHL players. Brennan is exactly that type of player.

  • Oilers Rule

    Bye bye, roster room needed for up and coming youngsters. It’s a development team and he’s not a player capable of making it into the NHL so no big deal losing the guy. Marlins weren’t competitive in Calder Cup semi-finals with TJ s__tting the bed and playing brutal. If a mentor for younglings is wanted I would suggest someone who shows up in the playoffs when it matters as thats the type of mentoring you want for young up and coming players, not showing how to be a choker and choke like a dog lol.

    Since TJ isn’t NHL capable he also has to do best for himself to make as good of a living as he can, while he can, and seek out the league where he can earn the most money whether it be KHL or other European league. NO big deal, guys who have no future in NHL go overseas all the time and other NHL teams don’t fall over themselves to overpay them and stop them from leaving????

    • You’re off base in a lot of ways here.

      – Development teams still need to foster positive, successful environments. They don’t need to be the Hersheys and Chicagos of the league that seem to focus more on winning than prospects in the long-run, but being reasonably competitive is good for morale, affords more room for experimentation, and gives more games to play.

      – Calling Brennan a choker is unfair. Most of the team had a quiet playoffs. His SH% from Game 3 of the Albany Series on was just 3.1%, far and away his unluckiest stretch of the year. He was key on the Bridgeport series and the start of the Albany Series and had four points in Game 4 against Hershey. He wasn’t his dominant self but he was far from the reason the Marlies lost.

      I can agree that the general rule is to let AAAA talent head to greener pastures, but Toronto has more money to work with than most teams and also a lot at stake here.

      As they learned the last time they lost him, replacing a 70 point defenceman is really, really goddamn hard. They don’t really exist in this league other than him, and nobody in the pipeline comes all that close to being that productive. Toronto’s 2nd, 3rd, and 4th highest scoring defencemen (one of which is a year older than him), combined for five points more than him and eight fewer goals.

      Looking at graduates, you’re basically aggressively crossing your fingers that Dermott, Nielsen, and/or Brouillard can fill that void. As pro rookies, none should be expected to come close.

      If Toronto wants to keep the Marlies as competitive as they are young they’re going to need an established offensive presence and with several of those guys leaving, losing the best offensive defenceman (and one of the best offensive players period) in the league is something they should try to avoid.

      • silentbob

        Exactly

        Plus, playing with Brennan for a year or two can have a positive affect on young players like Dermott, Nielsen and Brouillard. Having a good veteran D-man or two there with 4-5 young players is a good thing for the development system

        • Jess Pincente

          For argument’s sake, what’s the positive effect Brennan has had on Percy? Loov? Nothing pops out to me, why would his effect be any different with Dermott, Nielsen and Brouillard?

          We’ve already got Soupy, a good veteran D-man and our captain, signed for next year. The question is, why are we giving Brennan a 100+% raise rather than signing a different AAAA guy. What’s so magical about Brennan?

          • silentbob

            http://theahl.com/-ahlotb-the-role-of-veterans-p201412

            “It’s really to be a second tier coach behind Dallas,” said Chris Mueller. “[Someone for] the guys to look up to, see what it takes to get there and hopefully stay there, and have long careers.”

            “[My job is] to show [the Ducks’] young prospects how to become a pro. It is hard for a 19/20 year old to leave juniors, to leave college, where there’s not a whole lot of responsibility; to all of a sudden this is your job, this is your livelihood, and if you don’t take it seriously, there are always new guys coming up and it could be gone in a flash,” added Mueller. “It’s our job to make sure they do understand and know the process of what it is to be a professional.”

          • Jess Pincente

            I’m asking about Brennan, not any old AAAA veteran. This whole article is about paying a specific AAAA player more than double what they used to make. I’m asking why, when you could instead get a different AAAA guy that could do all the things you listed above, but for the normal rate.

      • Gary Empey

        So what are you going to do with Dermott, Nielsen, and Brouillard ? What is the point in stockpiling draft picks only to have their development ice-time taken up by veteran AHL players?

  • silentbob

    Can you send this to Kyle Dubas – very good points made. He’s a leader on and off the ice and these young guys need to learn to drop their ego, which TJ can definitely mentor. To let the Eddie Shore winner leave twice, stupid move. He loves being here and I don’t know of one person who wants him to leave.

  • Jess Pincente

    Jeff, I know you’ve got a soft spot for Brennan, but sometimes you need to let a guy free.

    The Marlies are a premier AHL organization that can attract other AAAA players on their own merits. TJ Brennan is a good AHL defenceman with an NHL shot that will always be taking up a PP spot.

    The former should not be getting into a bidding war over the latter. TJ Brennan does not make or break what Dubas and the Marlies are up to, not by a long shot.

  • silentbob

    I like TJ but paying him 7 figures to be a role model on the farm team is a bit much. Better to move on, take the growing pains with whoever replaces him and open a spot for another kid.

    (remember, the Leafs have 12 picks this draft so you have to start giving some of the kids from the last 2 drafts some proper minutes to see what they have in them as Leafs brass will have to make decisions on them a lot of these guys sooner rather than later)

  • FlareKnight

    If he wants to move on then they should let him do that. It’d be a shame to lose him, but it’s hardly a crisis either. If the benefit of having an AHL vet on the blueline is that critical then just sign someone else. Might not be as good offensively, but should be able to find a guy with a better two-way game. Something that is probably more important to have as an example for young players than a one-way offensive D.

    I don’t think the Leafs need to respond to this. If Brennan doesn’t want the money they can afford to give to him that’s his choice. Nothing wrong with the guy wanting to make more money while he can overseas.

    Not saying they should boot him out the door, but just that they shouldn’t be bothered going too far to try and keep him either.

  • Drapes55

    I didn’t really see the value of keeping a guy like Brennan around to teach the rookies. Yes he puts up points but his coverage in his own zone is atrocious at the best of times. He’s the AHL version of Karlsson. I’d much rather a cheaper option similar to Soupy who will teach the young D how to protect their own end first rather than try and score your way out of trouble like TJ does. In saying that, would that not also help with bringing up young goalies? Instead of just throwing them to the wolves and then blaming them for not stopping every scoring chance, give them some structure to play behind and learn the game the right way.

    • Oilers Rule

      Exactly, he also takes up valuable ice time that could be better used in developing future NHL’ers.

      While the Leaf’s want to have a winning culture, Dubas and others within Leaf’s new management have highlighted role of Marlies will be shifted under the Shanaplan to being more focused on development, not win at all mentality of Marlies past loading up team with career AHL players in attempt to win Calder. Development does not necessarily mean winning at all costs, but rather putting up-and-coming players in roles where they can develop their skill-sets into NHL players, learn Babcock’s systems, etc. to enable the few who make the cut to progress as seamlessly as possible onto the Leaf’s NHL roster.

      Oilers have followed old Marlies strategies for years to no avail and I believe the Leaf’s new approach to what the real purpose of the Marlies squad is meant for, is a positive eye opener and align with Detroit Red Wings ways which have also been very successful for many years. While Marlies fans may like to see team win at all costs, its not the end all with development being number one priority.

  • magesticRAGE

    I hear and understand both sides to the discussion, but logically I think it’s simple. The Leafs are the richest hockey team on the planet, and signing a player to an AHL contract is just money, not cap space. It’s like Bill Gates paying your phone bill. Erik Karlsson is the best offensive defenseman in the NHL, and few here would argue that he’s worth $9M+/year. Brennan is the most prolific scorer in the AHL, and some are hung up on $1M? Is he not adding to the cultivation of future contributors of the big club’s success? Surely there’s a price tag to that. Pay the man, let him help Dermott, Nielsen, Desrocher, and even Lindgren if he gets here. With Percy and Loov possibly being moved or called up, they’ll need more veteran presence besides Campbell.

    • Gary Empey

      I agree Leafs can certainly afford to pay him. Unlike Jeffler, I don’t think money is the real issue here. How is he going to help Dermott, Nielson, Derocher, and just signed Brouillard. They will be sitting on the bench or not even dressed, watching Brennan play the power play and get top pairing minutes. These prospects need icetime and lots of it. They all had great last years in the CHL.

      If the argument was that Brennan may yet develop into a top four NHL defencemen it would make a lot of sense to make sure he is re-signed. That doesn’t seem to be the case.

  • Gary Empey

    Excellent analysis JV.

    Raising his AHL salary to, say 975K, would be worth far more than him taking a big chance on the solvency and integrity of some clown team in Siberia.

    TJ has a lot of a talent, but unless his skating improves, he’ll likely never make it back to the NHL on a permanent basis.

    Still, he’s the perfect age to mentor the kids coming through the Marlies. He could be the Bruce Boudreau of these modern-day Leafs; career journeyman who ends up a coaching luminary.

    Keep him in the system.