Connor Brown: When sixth round picks become interesting

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Terry Wilson/OHL Images

Everything is coming up aces for the Toronto Maple Leafs in January.  The club has won six straight games to not just climb back into the playoff race but establish a secure foothold.  And if the riches weren’t embarrassing enough, the Leafs also have junior hockey’s hottest scorer, Connor Brown.

Brown, the 156th selection in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft currently leads the Ontario Hockey League in scoring with 31 goals, 61 assists for 92 points in 45 games this season.  He holds a 10-point lead over his closest competitor (teammate Dane Fox) and is on pace to challenge the 140-point mark in the OHL for the first time since Patrick Kane in 2007.

Since the OHL season began in October, Brown has gone from being a longshot prospect (ranked 21st by PPP and 18th by TLN in the 2013 offseason) to the club’s brightest draft pick.  His play so far this season earned him a three-year entry level contract; and his omission from Canada’s WJC team came as a shocker to anyone who understands that winning teams tend to outscore losing teams.

While interning at the Hockey News in the spring of 2012, Brown’s name first came to my attention while working on their draft preview issue.  While playing on a comically bad Erie Otters team, Brown racked up one of the worst +/- scores of any player in any league ever with a -72. Indeed, if I recall correctly, he was something of a laughing stock among the staff.

Never mind that +/- is a mostly pointless stat; Brown was one of the few good players on a team that literally gave up twice as many goals as they scored (169 GF vs. 338 GA, a hilarious -169 differential).  Lost in the negative zone was that Brown led those woeful Otters in scoring in 2012.  And repeated that feat in 2013.  And seems hell bent to lead the whole league for the three-peat.  Heck of an encore after being written off so completely.

Despite making headlines for the wrong reasons prior to his draft, the Leafs certainly have had a precise plan in place to see Brown develop into a top six guy in the NHL.  In a July 2013 interview, Leafs Player Development head Jim Hughes said this about Brown:

He’s an interesting one because his skill sets are so high.  He can find the late people, he can find the seam, he can find the backdoor people and he can buy time and space. He’s got really soft hands and a very creative brain.  

And then you put him with McDavid for another year. I think Connor finished around 80 points in the OHL?  So, when you play him with McDavid he should be in the 100-point range.  Maybe we keep in junior for an overage year.  Maybe he’ll be in the 110-120 point range. We’re not sure.  He’s got a high ceiling and we’re going to continue to find out how far he can take this, because he’s a second line player, not a 3 guy or a 4 guy.  He’s a 2 guy.  And we’ll see what kind of production he can put up this coming season.

With Connor we’re looking 24 months down the road.  It’s not a quick fix with him.  We’re looking to put 6-8 pounds on him this year, maybe another 6-8 pounds on him next year.  We’re looking long term and if we allow him that big window of another 24 months we might have something.

It’s safe to say that Brown has exceeded everybody’s expectations for him, even if a 100-point season did seem insane (instead of prophetic) at the time.  Clearly the biggest goals from the Maple Leafs’ standpoint are to see Brown add to both his point totals and his waistline.  But having nearly superseded his projected point totals in his draft +2 year with 23 games remaining, it’s safe to say Brown is ahead of the Leafs’ internal schedule.  He’ll almost certainly start with the Marlies for the 2014-15 season, as his offensive pedigree will be a welcome addition to Spott’s roster.

But will he be an NHLer? Or is he is merely an exceptional OHLer? I took a quick peak at the last 20 years of OHL leading scorers, their ages, draft status, points and games played:

YearNameAgeDraft+PTSNHL GP
2014Connor Brown202920
2013Vincent Trocheck1921090
2012Mike Sgarbossa1921026
2011Tyler Toffoli19110043
2010Taylor Hall180106215
2009John Tavares180104341
2008Justin Azevedo2021240
2007Patrick Kane180145497
2006Rob Schremp202145114
2005Corey Perry202130625
2004Corey Locke2021189
2003Corey Locke1911519
2002Nathan Robinson2031107
2001Kyle Wellwood180118489
2000Sheldon Keefe201121125
1999Peter Sarno2021307
1998Peter Sarno1911217
1997Marc Savard202130807
1996Aaron Brand2031190
1995Marc Savard180139807
1994Jason Allison191142552

Here are some takeaways from the above list:

–          Purely by the numbers, nine of the previous 20 OHL leading scorers went on to play at least 100 games.  When all is said and done, it seems likely that Tyler Toffoli will also achieve that rank, while Sgarbossa and Trocheck are still too young to guess.  But roughly 50% of leading scorers in the past 20 years played at least a season and a half in the NHL.

–          7 of the 9 leading scorers to play 100+ NHL games were first round picks.  3 of those 7 were first overall picks in their draft year.

–          5 of the 9 leading scorers to play 100+ NHL games did so in their draft year.

–          2 players led the OHL in scoring in an overage year (Robinson and Brand).

–          Only 2 players (excluding Trocheck) never played an NHL game.

–          Most of the above info doesn’t really help Connor Brown’s case

 

There appears to be a few distinct species of OHL scoring champs.  First is the superstar talent that set the league on fire before they were drafted.  Tavares, Hall, Kane would be the best examples of these guys.  Guys that end up being posters on some kid’s wall.

On the other end are smaller guys taken in late rounds who lit up the league before flickering out into relative NHL obscurity.  The Robinsons, Lockes and Sarnos of the world might torch the Erste Bank League, but their NHL dreams are long extinguished.

The third and final type is really an offshoot of the second.  Later round guys like Wellwood and Savard who had distinct knocks to their game (size, speed and commitment etc.) yet clearly have a couple truly exceptional hockey skills (playmaking and puck skills) that allow them to become everyday contributors to NHL clubs.

Unfortunately, his age (and likely his now insanely good supporting cast in Erie) suggests that Brown’s road to the show will be a long one, more similar to those second and third types.  But he’s already being afforded the opportunity to improve upon weaknesses like skating or defensive acumen with the Leafs training staff.

Yet for every Marc Savard comes at least one Aaron Brand or Justin Azevedo.  So while Brown has provided nothing but optimism for Leafs fans since his selection, all he’s done is distinguish himself from young competition after his draft year.

In terms of an NHL timeline, it would behoove Leafs fans to remember Jerry D’Amigo, another sixth rounder who shot out the lights after the Leafs drafted him.  Five seasons later and he’s only now cracked the Leafs lineup in a spot duty capacity.

But if you consider the process over the product, you can’t help but be hopeful.   While it doesn’t sound particularly impressive to potentially play ‘only’ 100 NHL games, the Maple Leafs’ scouting staff’s ability to continue to unearth cheap, potentially NHL-calibre talent late in the draft speaks to its competence league-wide.

More importantly, this late round success could offset dubious, low-ceiling selections in the first round like Tyler Biggs and Frederik Gauthier.  Because while it could be well argued that I’m being too negative about a guy tallying 2 points per game in junior, guys that can’t manage a point per game tend to have it worse.

  • Jordan29

    Realistically, when both those guys are back, whats our lineup?

    JVR-Bozak-Kessel
    Lupul-Kadri-Kulemin
    Raymond-Bolland-Clarkson
    Mcclement-Holland-Orr/Ashton

    Personally I would be ok with Orr scratched if we play teams like Colorado, Detroit, or weak teams. But any game we play Habs, Sens, Boston, or another rivalry, it would be a mistake to not have him in the lineup. Too much running around without him

  • Jordan29

    CanuckUKinToronto Ya I think its great but until I see a player play in the AHL, or a little NHL I dont hold my breath

  • ProfessorRance

    Jordan29 Looks good to me.

  • lukethenuke

    Jordan29 SO you think Bolland will effectivley jump into the third line spot and play near 20 mins a game?  Interesting…… very…

  • loomx

    Jordan29 Colton Orr has 2 fights in his last 20 games and is incapable of doing anything else. Waive both the goons and play an effective 4th line.

  • Jordan29

    lukethenuke Jordan29 its a depth look, could be 4th line i dont know i cant tell the future

  • Jordan29

    loomx Jordan29 You will say that, then when we play Boston and get pushed around and destroyed you would change your mind. This happens every year

  • Cameron19

    One thing that makes me hopeful about Brown is that he’s still very small, even in the OHL. It’s not like he’s 20, and he’s put on 40 pounds, and is basically a man. A lot of guys do better later just because they can out-muscle everyone. Even Crescenzi found offense in that league later on – but he was a behemoth by then.  Brown’s simply refined his skills.

    Also, even though his supporting cast is very good this year, it was total shit the last two years, and he still put up pretty decent numbers (122pts in 131 games). So it’s not as thought his offense is totally out of the blue, either. He was doing well even without the support.

  • MaxwellHowe

    CanuckUKinToronto He had a beautiful assist on MacKinnon’s second goal.
    I kid, I kid, Gardiner is generally playing very well.

  • Jay31

    Cameron19 Thats a very good point actually, not one I’ve seen brought up before. Interesting.

  • wendelsfist

    Why don’t the overlords get some members to also rank the top 20 leaf prospects.  There are some smart guys who watch and comment on a lot of these guys like stephens, alec , cam and others I’m not mentioning.

  • MaxwellHowe

    Cameron19 By all accounts, he has the right mindset as well.

  • Cameron19

    Jordan29 I would start Bolland on the 4th line, possibly even on the wing, and ask very little of him. My goal would be to bring him back without disrupting the team as much as possible.  Often returns can hurt a team more than help if not done slowly, and if contributors are suddenly, undeservedly displaced.

  • loomx

    Jordan29 loomx Orr can’t even push back anymore. He can’t catch up to anybody and when he does, he hardly fights. How did we almost beat Boston last year? Speed, speed, and more speed. The more speed throughout the lineup, the better. Bodie and Ashton have proven themselves to be more than ready to step up for teammates.

  • VictorHoyles

    Azevedo turns 26 is a couple month’s and is still only 170lbs at 5’7″.  I wouldn’t give up on Brown just yet.  At least he has a 5’11” frame to build on.

  • Jordan29

    loomx Jordan29 If we beat boston with speed, then why did nonis make us slower this year? we beat them with an all around game

  • MaxwellHowe

    VictorHoyles Still?  Unless he gets in touch with A-Rod’s doctor, Azevado ain’t gettin’ any bigger.

  • VictorHoyles

    That’s my point; he hasn’t added any weight since he was 20.

  • sniperstar

    VictorHoyles Same with Corey Locke. I think he’s 5’10 and 168 lbs.

  • Burtonboy

    Cameron19 Jordan29 You think the Leafs will try to ease him back in? My guess is he will be able to play at the very least decent minutes as a center or they will leave him on LTIR until he’s fully ready

  • Biltmore

    I would compare Brown with Eric Locke (drafted by the Sabres last year). I wouldn’t be surprised to see their careers mirror one another.

  • Jon5200

    One thing i have always said in the PAST is i have ALWAYS cheered for the Leafs but pre Burke i have NEVER felt the organization, not just the team, was going anywhere because of mismanagement….from the Ballard years on down to the suits and teachers pension etc…..NOW, i am more confident than ever that this team/organization will not only eventually win a cup, but be CUP competative for years to come….why….imho everyone in the organization is on the same page(finally!)….Leafs, Marlies, scouts, management etc…..prospects are DEVELOPING as never before in Leaf land and great scouting is starting to show good value(example, this article!)…..i beleaf this team will soon be in the same conversation when talking about elite NHL teams……….they r not there yet but with EVERYONE in the organization pulling on that rope…..the promised land will b here sooner than later………….just my 2 cents………….

  • DIGGLER _69

    Joe Pavelski was a 7th rounder. I don’t mind that.

  • lukethenuke

    Jon5200 jesus where were you a couple weeks ago with this positivity?

  • loomx

    Jordan29 loomx Because he’s a moron.

  • Jon5200

    lukethenukeJon5200 lol…..i have had it since i started to realize what Burke was putting together….mainly the off ice structure…….

  • Jordan29

    So you guys actually think we should trade our 3rd leading scorer at one mil just to get a draft pick? We are Leafs fans right? Not oilers or flames out of the playoffs right?

  • MaxwellHowe

    VictorHoyles i know, I was just being an idiot

  • loomx

    Jordan29 The alternative is letting him walk for nothing or give him a $4mil/year contract. Neither is very appealing.

  • Jordan29

    loomx Jordan29 We fucking keep him for the rest of the season and playoffs? How about that option? Am I not seeing something through here?

  • Jon5200

    lukethenukeJon5200 i am not saying there wont be anymore bumps in the road but the Leafs now have a better opportunity to succeed than they have EVER had in this organization……

  • lukethenuke

    Jordan29 80% of his assits are second and not even contributing to the goal… like last night, he apparentlty got a point on Kessel’s first goal.. who knew?!

  • http://i.imgur.com/MyKj5C3.gif ingy56

    Jordan29 I can’t say whether they should or not, but I heard Loiselle on TSN radio at noon and he said they don’t follow the buy/seller model at trade deadline time or any other time. He said they consider improving the team first and foremost. I don’t see how trading Raymond for a pick meets that requirement right now. So basically I ‘d say they shouldn’t.

  • BPsotka

    lukethenuke Jordan29 that still means he’s putting the puck in the right places.

  • Jordan29

    Murph2417 Jordan29 well ya but right now, that would be idiotic to trade him. Hes ben perfect the last 5 games or so on the 3rd line and still ppg player. Hes a perfect fit. Trading him would be probably the stupidest thing we did in years

  • Jay31

    DIGGLER _69 Braun was also picked up near there.. Sharks have had some nice steals

  • VictorHoyles

    Yip.  If we were in a position to add a guy like Raymond for a stretch/cup run for a 3rd or 4th rounder we would do it in a heartbeat.  And here we have him for free. What a concept!?!

  • loomx

    Jordan29 loomx ….and then Nonis signs him to a monster contract and he disappears like he’s done throughout his career. Look beyond this year for once.

  • MaxwellHowe

    Jordan29 loomx Some of us don’t really think the Leafs are going to be big time contenders this year.  Some of us see thah the prospect pool still needs to be developed.  And some of us watch Raymond avoid physical contact and get sick of seeing him give the puck away and avoid the tough areas of the ice.  Raymond ain’t getting the Leafs over the hump and he ain’t good enough to completely avoid physical play.

  • lukethenuke

    BPsotka lukethenuke Jordan29 not an impact player is my point. If he was getting points and actually like you know, doing something sure, but the guy is invisible and gets these ghost points lol.  Very replacable, not an impact player on any line, got him on a tryout, will not be here next year, sell him now, unlike what happened with grabo and Mac.  Its vcalled live and learn

  • Burtonboy

    https://twitter.com/LavoieRenaudhttps://twitter.com/LavoieRenaud/status/426063509646880769
    Michael Del Zotto traded to the Nashville Predators. https://twitter.com/search?q=%23rangers&src=hash

  • lukethenuke

    Jordan29 were not good enough to have non impact players playing above thier heads that wont be around next year just leaving us for nothing.  Aka Grabo and Mac. Live and learn.  If we were a perennial contender, such as the Pens, Hawks etc…i would agree, but I know about asset management for building hockey clubs. SJ does this year in and year out and look at how competitive they are and have become

  • Jay31

    Burtonboy whoa that came out of nowhere

  • lukethenuke

    Burtonboy damn beat me to it.

  • VictorHoyles

    For what?!?

  • ProfessorRance

    Burtonboy I wonder what for.

  • lukethenuke

    Jay31 Burtonboy out of nowhere? Everyone knew the guy was gonna be traded lol

  • http://mapleleafshotstove.com/ DeclanK

    Jay31 Burtonboy FUCK YOU BB!

  • Burtonboy

    DeclanK Jay31 Burtonboy MOOOOOOOHAHAHAHAH

  • http://i.imgur.com/MyKj5C3.gif ingy56

    I wonder when the Rangers might move Del Zotto? :)