Connor Brown has been signed to a three-year contract worth $2.1 million AAV, the club announced on Saturday.
Brown will be an arbitration-eligible RFA at the end of the deal in 2020 (when he’ll be 26).
Brown was a plug-and-play piece for Leafs head coach Mike Babcock in 2016-17. The 23-year-old rookie posted solid secondary production, played in all situations, and showed an impressive level of overall maturity to his game.
The Toronto native started on the fourth line in October but quickly earned a promotion onto the shutdown unit with Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov (after Milan Michalek was sent to the minors in October) where he was trusted on the ice against the best players in the league. He also spent some time on Matthews’ right wing opposite Zach Hyman and played on both sides of special teams (1:59 PK TOI/game, 1:13 PP TOI/game).
While handling all of the responsibilities of a three-situation player, Brown finished the season with 20 goals and 36 points in his first NHL season. Those totals include six power play points, one shorthanded goal and three empty-net goals, as Babcock trusted him in late-game situations while protecting a lead. His 17 even strength goals were tied for 59th overall in the NHL and tied for third among rookies (behind Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine and Ryan Hartman).
As far as first-year players who played over a minute per game on the power play, two minutes or more per game on the PK (including Brown in that group at 1:59) and scored 20 goals, Brown is just the ninth NHL rookie to achieve the feat since 2005-06:
NHL Rookies with 20 goals, minimum 1:00 PPTOI/game & 2:00 PKTOI/game (2005-2017)
While it was overshadowed by the accomplishments of the younger “Big Three” Leaf rookies, Brown’s was a pretty special rookie season that would’ve generated way more buzz in a normal year. Prior to 2016-17, the last time a Leaf rookie scored 20 goals was Mikhail Grabovski in 2008-09; prior to Grabovski, we have to go back to Sergei Berezin in 1996-97.
Brown’s two minutes per game on the penalty kill (which finished 10th in the league) could expand in the years to come, as well. Particularly toward the end of the season, he really came into his own in the role — he has good anticipatory skills without the puck and can quickly cover ground laterally, which makes him disruptive on the forecheck and in breaking up entries in the neutral zone.
On the power play, where he played a little more than a minute per game, he showed some signs that he could play the net front role effectively as he’s willing to battle and he’s crafty in tight. Patrick Marleau adds another name to the power play rotation which might limit Brown’s opportunities initially, but with JVR’s future in Toronto up in the air, he could stand to benefit from more power play time down the road.
Overall, Brown’s roundedness as a player and usefulness in a wide variety of situations is pretty unique for a player who just finished up his rookie campaign. It also doesn’t hurt he’s a Toronto kid and a true “homegrown” prospect. At $2.1 million, the Leafs have him locked in at great value for the next three seasons.
In the spring, I broke down the recent comparables for Brown:
If we get really specific in terms of comparables and filter the list down to 22/23-year-old rookies who were on expiring contracts and put up 15+ goals and 40 or fewer points, only two names pop up over the last six years: Chris Kreider and Brad Marchand. Marchand (21 goals, 40 points) received a two-year, $2.5 million contract under a $64.3 million cap, while Kreider (17 goals, 37 points) received a two-year, $2.48 million a year contract under a $69 million cap.
Some reasonable recent comparisons to non-rookies:
Cody Eakin: As a 22-year-old sophomore, he put up 16 goals and 35 points in 2013-14 and received a two-year, $1.9 million AAV contract. Eakin played a similar amount to Brown on both sides of special teams.
Andrew Shaw: As a 22-year-old sophomore in 2013-14, he posted a 20-goal, 39-point season, including nine PP points, and received a two-year, $2 million per year contract part way through the season.
Brock Nelson: The Islander forward recorded 20 goals and 42 points as a 23-year-old sophomore in 2014-15 and received a three-year, $2.5 million AAV contract in September 2015. 15 of Nelson’s points came on the power play (where he played 2:42 per game) compared to just six for Brown.
Tomas Tatar: Not technically a rookie (he played more than six NHL games in two previous seasons), Tatar was in a similar situation as Brown in 2013-14, having played 18 NHL games the season previous as a 22-year-old. At age 23, Tatar posted a 19-goal, 39-point season in 73 games, including six power play points, and received a three-year, $2.75 million AAV contract at year’s end.
Keeping in mind that Brown posted 20 goals as a rookie and the cap is now at $75 million, $2.1 million is a tidy cap figure for the next three years.
With all players signed, the Leafs are now $4.58 million over the cap ceiling on a full 23-man roster but have LTIR relief available on the Nathan Horton and Joffrey Lupul contracts amounting to $10.5 million.