We will not be ranking 21-year-old Toronto Marlies winger Justin Brazeau in this year’s Top 25 Under 25.
We are not doing this because we hate him; we do not hate him. We only hate defencemen. We are not doing this because he does not deserve to be in the Top 25; he may well not, but that isn’t the reason. We are not ranking him because the Leafs don’t have any contractual right to him, and so he doesn’t make our list of eligibles. By the strict letter of the law, the Leafs have no more right to his services as a potential NHL player than do the Florida Panthers.
At the same time, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Toronto Marlies share common ownership, and the development in the AHL is often done with an eye to NHL dividends. Conceivably, if Justin Brazeau—or Giorgio Estephan, or Riley Woods, or whoever the hell else—takes a quantum leap in development, the Leafs have a leg up in that the Marlies will surely be willing to mutually terminate Brazeau’s AHL contract so that he’s free to sign an NHL one. So he’s organization-adjacent, while not quite being in the organization.
And people seem a little interested in Justin. So as long as we’re here:
Justin Brazeau is a right wing who has spent his last four seasons plying his uncompensated trade for the North Bay Battalion. At 6’6” and 236 lbs., he is a very large young man; he’d be tied for the tallest forward in the NHL had he appeared in that league this season. As a February 1998 birthday, he was first draft eligible in 2016, but his 13 points in 65 games did not find any takers. Brazeau went unselected twice more, despite rising point totals, in 2017 and 2018. As per section 8.4(iv) of the CBA, he was eligible to become an NHL unrestricted free agent once his junior season ended. Instead, he took a deal with the Toronto Marlies, who gave him $70,000 a year with a $60,000 signing bonus each season. Apparently he was offered slightly more money by another AHL team, but he was won over by Kyle Dubas’ personal approach.
Why was the thrice-undrafted Brazeau such a hot commodity? Two reasons:
a) He is enormous
b) He scored all of the goals
Yes, as you can see, Justin Brazeau put up an OHL-leading 61 goals in 68 games last year, and he finished second only to Dallas draftee Jason Robertson in points. Brazeau was chosen as the OHL’s Overage Player of the Year, a nice capstone to his junior career. The thing is, as a huge 20-year-old going on 21 who was clobbering OHL-level competition, there are legitimate questions as to whether he’ll be nearly so dominant in a pro league against adult men. He has a patented strong arm move, as described in this Scott Wheeler profile, that involves him protecting the puck with one arm and his body and shoving away opposition with the other. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it gets harder to pull off those power forward moves when you don’t have any years and as many inches on the competition.
The heartening thing about Brazeau is that he seems to have brains to go with his size. As early as 2016, friend of the site Janik Beichler was recommending him as a seventh-round flyer candidate based on his hockey sense and skill. If you’d like to get excited about Brazeau, I recommend his account of him being one of those players who knows where to be positionally in order to exploit defences. Further, his physical play at that time was described as a weakness; it is not one now, by all accounts. Brazeau has not neglected the gym in the intervening years.
Now seems as good a time as any for a quick video clip, although this one is from December 2017. Brazeau slides right through the gap in the defence on the first goal here, which is partly a testament to dubious OHL-quality defending, but is also nonetheless impressive for a huge player not renowned for his speed. Nice finish, too.
You have to take profiles of players, especially those heavy on the biography rather than the hockey, with many a grain of salt. The average hockey player gets turned into a candidate for sainthood in some of them. All the same, it seems clear that Brazeau has really worked on his game hard to both fill out his frame and to improve his skating, the acknowledged weak point in his game. Size and age advantage be damned, you don’t become the top goal-scorer in the OHL by coasting, and that speaks to Brazeau’s work ethic.
His hands aren’t bad, he’s big, he’s got brains, he’s coachable, he’s determined. So about that skating, which is acknowledged to be “his kryptonite” in the above profile...the most generous outside quote about his skating I saw was that it was “acceptable” (this was written last summer.) Justin and his enormous feet are very much a work in progress.
If you say “bad skater with potential” to a Leafs fan, they shout “Barb Underhill” like they’re invoking the name of a deity; the ex-figure skater is talked about like a miracle worker at improving speed and stride. And Barb has indeed been tasked with getting Bigfoot some wheels:
“Brazeau drove south in mid-May and is dedicating this summer to his stride, hitting the ice for sessions with Underhill, the Leafs dedicated skating coach, three or four times a week and training daily at the Leafs practice facility.
Underhill is dismantling Brazeau’s stride right down to the basics in order to rebuild it properly, like a golfer learning a new swing starting with the grip and stance.”
As you can doubtless conclude from all that, Brazeau is a project. As with all hockey projects the name is a bit misleading, because he’s both the work and the worker to a large extent. Brazeau made himself into a scorer at one level, and now the degree of difficulty is turned up as he tries to make himself into a scorer at a higher one.
Do you want to bet on him?
Kyle Dubas did, but then, an AHL contract is a painless bet for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. As much as he seems to like Brazeau (and Dubas clearly has a knack for the personal sales job) there is a reason Brazeau went undrafted three times. Some of that is the anchoring bias that likely causes overage players to be underrated. Some of that is just that teams are rightly skeptical of the big kid who runs rampant over the little ones, after he’s grown past them.
Ultimately, I think Brazeau seems like a nice young man and a terrific lottery ticket. If there’s a storybook ending for Brazeau as the undrafted NHL success story, a kind of mirror Martin St. Louis, you can find the start of it in those links above. It’s just not the likeliest outcome, and that’s fine. The NHL is a hard league to make.
If you’re wondering whether I’d rank Justin Brazeau in my top 25, given the chance: probably not. But you can make a perfectly decent case to put him with or above many of the faint hope prospects who populate lower end of the list. If you want to dream on Brazeau’s size and talent, you most definitely can.