I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone state that all Connor Brown does is score. There’s a certain image that’s evoked when we describe a player like that. Thomas Vanek and Brandon Pirri come to mind. Brown doesn’t.
Brown is routinely praised for his defensive ability. He is lauded for his versatility, playing both on the penalty kill and the power play. His work ethic, determination, and attitude have been extolled beyond measure. But start to drill down deeper and you realize: at even strength, all Connor Brown does is score.
He doesn’t pass. Brown recorded fewer assists than goals last year, and has repeated the effort this season. Over the last two seasons, on a rate basis, the only current Leafs he has more primary assists than are Leo Komarov, Dominic Moore, and Matt Martin. He ranked 364th among forwards last year in expected primary assist rate as well, so it’s hard to argue that he simply got unlucky, especially since he spent all of his time with either Auston Matthews or Nazem Kadri. He just doesn’t set up his teammates for shots. The obvious counter is to note that he started the year playing with Matt Martin and Dominic Moore. However, the Leafs line-shuffling means he has spent more time with Patrick Marleau, Tyler Bozak, and James van Riemsdyk than he has with Martin or Moore.
He doesn’t drive play. His teammate-adjusted relative Corsi was negative last year and is even more negative this year. In fact, this season, he ranks only above Leo Komarov in this metric. Essentially, he tends to make his teammates worse in terms of possession. Every time he’s been promoted from the fourth line, the person replacing him makes that line better. Matt Martin has a 54% CF without Connor Brown. With him, he’s at 39%. Brown, when away from Martin (i.e. not playing fourth line minutes with fourth line linemates) is at 48%. Even if you only look at periods where Brown is played with capable linemates, he is still below average at possession. If you restrict yourself to looking at shots against, he is below average relative to his teammates. And he looks worse if you switch to expected goals. This might explain why.
He doesn’t carry the puck. In an 11-game sample of tracked data from this year, Brown recorded as many carried zone entries as Martin did. His controlled exits are a little better — here he beats out Komarov, Martin, Moore, and Marleau. But as we’d expect to see from someone with mediocre possession results, his ability to transition the play to offence is suspect.
He doesn’t shoot. This may seem a contradiction — I led by saying he scores goals. It’s hard to do that without shooting. And yet, Brown is managing it. He has the lowest shot attempt rate of any forward on the team. Yes, even Leo. Adjust for shot location and he looks better — he jumps ahead of Bozak and Marner (still behind Leo though). He takes a tiny proportion of the shots when his team is on the ice — 15%, the lowest on the team, even if we expand to defencemen. Fortunately for him, he’s shooting a preposterous 20% on his unblocked shot attempts. Based on shot location and type, he’d be expected to score about 8% of them.
So, Connor Brown doesn’t pass. He doesn’t drive play. He doesn’t transition the puck. He doesn’t even shoot. It’s hard to find a measurable facet of even strength play where he excels. Yet he scores, at least for now. If (when) that shooting percentage crashes back to earth, he won’t have that to fall back on.
Now, the caveats. This focuses on even strength play, and has emphasis on this season. Brown’s possession driving was better, though still below average, last year. Additionally, he plays regular penalty kill minutes, and given the difficulty of identifying PK talent, I will defer to Mike Babcock and assume he is perfectly adequate at that role. While I’m deferring to Babcock’s expertise, here is where I acknowledge that he has more hockey understanding in his pinky finger than I ever will, and he is a big, big fan of Connor Brown. That makes sense — there are things to like about him. Brown is absolutely an NHL player, albeit a below average one. He can look like he belongs on a line with better players. He has game sense, and an understanding of his own abilities — quite sensibly, he defers to Auston Matthews when playing with him. I don’t doubt for a second that he is an animal in the gym and that he is receptive to coaching and feedback. Babcock routinely praises his work ethic both in the context of a game and outside it. I think all of that has value. However, the fact remains that when you analyze the results of him being on the ice, they simply don’t look particularly good, regardless of how hard he works, or how much the coach loves him.
All of this makes it more frustrating when he is played above better players like William Nylander and Mitch Marner, which has happened at various points this year. Taking Babcock at face value, this is because he believes Brown gives the team a better chance to win. As he would put it “if you play good, you play more, and if you don’t play good, you don’t play more”. Perhaps Brown is the instrument by which he sends messages to Nylander and Marner. Likely, there is a bit of both reasons coming into play. However, there is no evidence-based argument — none whatsoever — that playing Brown more even-strength minutes than Marner or Nylander makes the Leafs better.
It also makes it frustrating when Nylander and Marner get panned in the media for their play while Brown is lauded for his. On Leafs Lunch on Wednesday, Craig Button reamed out Nylander and Marner, saying that they had been “inconsistent at different points of the season” (skip to 23:37 here). About 10 seconds later, the following exchange occurs:
Andy Chiodo: If you look at Connor Brown and what he does with whatever he’s given, and the way he works every single night, and Hyman, what they do on a regular basis, the reality is that with the reduced minutes, with the situations that these guys are put in, specifically, Nylander, you gotta find a way to do something to get your self in a better spot. And that’s what Connor Brown does night in and night out. Hyman [too], every single shift. Even Leivo, when he steps in, he plays with an edge. Those guys are fighting for their lives, every single day. Hyman’s on that top line, but make no mistake, he’s fighting for his meal ticket, every single night to stay there. And those guys play with an intensity and an urgency, night in and night out, and that’s what, [for] example, Nylander has to find a way to do in this situation. It’s not easy for him, there are a lot of things going against him.
Craig Button: How do you think he found himself where he is. HIS PLAY [note: this isn’t editorializing — he actually yelled this. I encourage you to go to the timestamp and listen].
Andi Petrillo: As in, on the fourth line, you mean?
CB: Yeah, how did Marner find himself there. His play. Stand in front of the mirror, identify where you’re responsible, which is pretty much everywhere, and deal with it. Stop looking around.
CB: I mean, it’s straightforward. I really think it’s straightforward. And you know what, this idea of
(mocking baby voice) Oh, what are you gonna do to help William Nylander.
(normal voice) You know what, William Nylander, help yourself!
Now, there are legitimate criticisms of Nylander and Marner, but by far their biggest issue this year is the fact that they are shooting unsustainably low percentages. In just about every respect besides scoring goals, they have been superior to Brown this year. Assists, points, possession, expected goals, even +/- in the case of Nylander. Goals are obviously important - that Brown has scored, even in such an obviously unsustainable fashion, is a credit to him. However, when he isn’t scoring, he is providing little else. When all you have is unsustainable scoring, what are you when that well runs dry? Marner and Nylander, even in their slumps, add to the team in other, very obvious ways.
Despite this, you have analysts falling over themselves to praise Brown while ripping the other two, arguing that they, by on-ice play alone, have been worse. The people arguing this are often those who would decry offence only players who don’t bring much else to the table. They would never think of Brown like that — they’d likely think someone was crazy for suggesting it. As it turns out, all he does right now is score.
WOWY data is courtesy of Natural Stat Trick. Everything else is from Corsica. Shot plots are from HockeyViz. All stats are 5v5 and adjusted.