A year ago, after Connor Brown played well enough in Toronto Maple Leafs training camp and pre-season to earn a spot among the organization's 12 best forwards, he was sent down in order to spend his sophomore year developing his game and growing as a player.
Back then, the decision was easily understood. The Leafs had no intention of being competitive and they were going to ice an opening day roster that allowed them to play several capable veterans on short-term contracts until February in order to flip them at the deadline for future assets.
It worked, and the team later moved on from the likes of Daniel Winnik and Nick Spaling as a result. Brown, fresh off a leading the Marlies in scoring and finishing atop the rookie scoring table league-wide in the AHL, could benefit from another year of trying to elevate his game with a historically good Marlies team. The intention, probably, was to have him come up and finish the year without burning a year of his deal -- like Nikita Soshnikov and Zach Hyman later did. But a broken foot forced him into a shortened campaign, and he was instead rewarded with a shorter seven-game stint with the big club.
A year later -- still able to be sent down without having to clear waivers -- and the Leafs will have another tough decision to make on arguably their top prospect after William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and Auston Matthews. This time though, a favourable waiver exempt status shouldn't stand in his way of making the team.
If there was little doubt in Mike Babcock's mind that Connor Brown was capable of stepping into the NHL a year ago, there should be even less this time around. At the AHL level, it is no longer beneficial for Brown to return to a Marlies team that he has been the engine of for two complete seasons. At 22 years old, he's no longer on a development curve and is already entering his prime. We know, that NHL players peak earlier than we once thought they did and that the player Brown is today is roughly the player he will be as he enters his mid-20s. It's time, now, for him to progress and learn at the NHL level. After registering six point with limited ice-time in his seven-game stretch last year, Brown has made it clear that he's ready.
Since serving notice that he was one of if not the AHL's best, most complete young player in his rookie season, Brown produced at a clip last year that puts him in a statistical conversation with other near-surefire NHL players, including Jakub Vrana, Radek Faksa, Reid Boucher, and others. Against every measurable AHL or CHL metric, Brown has shown himself to be a high-end NHL prospect. Measured against his peers, including Josh Leivo, Kerby Rychel, Nikita Soshnikov, and Zach Hyman, Brown has proven himself again and again to be the superior offensive threat (relative to his age) while also playing an effective checking game and regular penalty kill duties.
Brown isn't your typical young forward, who needs seasoning defensively either. And with Soshnikov and Hyman, darlings to Babcock last season, there's an even starker contrast offensively than there is with Leivo and Rychel.
If his training camp weight of 190 Ibs is to be believed, he's also continued to add strength.
If the Leafs are truly trying to build a meritocracy, and take positive steps away from being 30th-place finishers -- indications from management and from moves to acquire Frederik Andersen and Matt Martin suggest they are -- then Brown should undoubtedly be on the opening-night roster. After James van Riemsdyk, Leo Komarov, William Nylander (who I believe should be a centre), and Mitch Marner, Brown is probably the organization's best winger. And the Leafs' signing and acquisition of too many aging veterans in order to take on salary last year shouldn't prevent that from being the case. Ideally, when an organization is acquiring these bodies, it isn't done with the intention of disadvantaging a talented -- and ready -- pool of prospects.
While there is room for some of Colin Greening, Milan Michalek, Brooks Laich to compete for a roster spot with the Leafs, it shouldn't be at the expense of a player like Connor Brown having to spend a good chunk of another year in a league he's proven he doesn't need to be playing in. This is especially the case this season because the trio's contracts aren't easily moved at the deadline like Winnik's was last year, even if they have strong years. Nor does adding Brown mean that the Leafs will be infusing too much youth, especially after the team added Matt Martin to a group of veterans up front that already includes Nazem Kadri, van Riemsdyk, Komarov, and likely Peter Holland.
Brown has paid his dues and if that means eating salary on a veteran or taking a roster spot away from another young player like Soshnikov or Hyman, he has earned that too. It's time the Leafs gave him regular minutes, with capable offensive forwards, for a full season.
He's ready. Just ask him.
"I think I’ve come a long way, especially through the injury, I feel a lot more dominant than I did in playoffs last year," he said. "I feel like a lot more of a complete player as well — stronger, faster. I feel good about myself."
Moving forward, Brown thinks he can return to Leafs training camp and make the team.
"I’m going to do everything I can in the offseason to set myself up for a good camp like I did last year," he said. "I had a pretty good camp."
"I feel good," he said of himself. "I feel really, really good."
- Leafs prospect Connor Brown continuing to play key role in Marlies' playoff drive, by Scott Wheeler (National Post)