Brown Leaving Town

I sincerely hope Connor Brown doesn’t search his name on Twitter. I mean, aside from the regular reasons why an NHL player should never do that, Brown has been in the unenviable situation of being the player who is included in every fantasy trade proposed by Leafs fans. It’s easy to see why.

Brown is clearly inferior to Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Kasperi Kapanen on the right side. He can play left wing, though I don’t think he can play it well; certainly, I don’t think he provides anything over Andreas Johnsson, Zach Hyman, or the late career version of Patrick Marleau. There’s no spot for him in the top nine, and simply put, $2.1M should be the Leafs combined cost for all their fourth liners next year.

While he wasn’t traded at this year’s deadline, it seems almost certain that he will be traded this offseason to make room for the cap-strapped Leafs. And now we have a basis for speculating a team that he may go to.

The wording here is interesting to me, as Rishaug makes it seem as though the Oilers initiated the talks regarding Brown. Regardless, it appears there is a suitor for Brown, and in a lot of ways, it makes sense that it’s the Oilers. Brown is, as far as the stats go, a slightly below average winger. His 1.37 5v5 P/60 over the last three years ranks 307th among forwards with more than 600 5v5 minutes in that time. It’s worth noting that the difference between 307th and 250th is about 5 points over the span of the last three seasons, so don’t worry too much about the precise rank. He doesn’t really do anything on the power play, seems like a competent but not amazing penalty killer, and his play driving numbers suggest he’s close to a net neutral player (albeit, one who slows the pace of the game down).

You can play him in any situation (as Mike Babcock often does) and he won’t embarrass himself, nor will he greatly outshine the role. He’s a bit of a chameleon, who from what I can see, is very dependent on the talent around him to achieve any sort of on-ice success. He’s been a part of successful lines, most notably when he was paired with Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk last year, with the grouping maintaining or improving their on-ice numbers compared to when Marner was on the line in lieu of Brown. I have this working theory that any line with Connor Brown will work, as long as he is clearly the third best player in the group.

For this reason, I can see why Edmonton would like him. He’s had some success riding shotgun to more talented offensive players. Edmonton has a couple elite offensive players and very few competent players around them. The history of Brown with Connor McDavid may play an (outsized) role in Edmonton’s interest in him, but either way, this seems like a fit.

The next question becomes the return. As Rishaug speculates above, Matt Benning is a potential target. He’s a 24 year old RD who is making $1.9M next year. He pretty consistently plays bottom pairing minutes, and the competition you’d expect to see given that role.

Historically, he’s a rather good 5v5 point producer for a defenceman, for however much that is worth (personally, it’s not something I really care about). His relative CF% and xG% was positive over the last two seasons, but slightly negative this year. Overall, context adjusted stats such as RAPM and Isolated Threat put him in the range of average.

What this says is that Benning is a little above average in terms of shot share both offensively and defensively. If we account for chance quality, he looks better offensively but worse defensively, but is still a net positive. This does not include his relatively poorer 2018/2019 season.

Isolated Threat tells a slightly different story, viewing Benning as a slightly below average play driver. This is a good spot to mention that we should mentally place error bars around the outputs of these models. I’m comfortable saying Benning is around league average in this manner, but anything more specific is something I’m way less confident speculating about.

Like Brown’s appeal to the Oilers, Benning’s appeal to the Leafs is also obvious. He’s relatively young, cheap, a RD, and appears competent. The immediate argument is that $1.9M is too much to pay for someone to play on the third pair. I would agree. I think Benning is a stealth acquisition to play on the second pair, potentially taking Nikita Zaitsev’s role. To be clear, I don’t think Benning would be an above average player in this role. But there is no guarantee that the Leafs find the RD they want to marry this offseason, and like the last couple years, I can see them going for a stopgap. As such, this is the framework of a deal I could see both teams returning to around the draft. It makes more sense for the Leafs to deal Brown then. While I think the Leafs would have to add a little bit to get Benning in this sort of trade, the Oilers would and should see Brown as an asset, and I don’t think the values of the two players are hugely different.

Timing is Everything

I saw some frustration on the part of Leafs fans that the team stood pat at the deadline. Boston added Marcus Johansson, which bolsters their offensive depth. Meanwhile, the murder line of Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak is still something the Leafs have no real answer for. They’re hardly unique in that respect, but this was their last chance to do something on that front. As a result, I think that this frustration is understandable.

We’ve spent the last two seasons watching that line destroy the Rielly-Hainsey pairing, and the Leafs seem poised to run headlong into that problem again. That said, there are a couple things that we should keep in mind.

Firstly, the Leafs already made their defensive upgrade acquisition in Jake Muzzin... they just did it a month ago. If they did the same thing today, the feeling around the team would be that they addressed their issue, and Muzzin would help neutralize (or more accurately, mitigate) Boston’s top line. But Muzzin is old news now, which fuels this disappointment.

Secondly, Kyle Dubas’ comments about the Leafs continuing to experiment with defensive pairings provides some hope that the Leafs will not continue to play Ron Hainsey over his head. It’s been said to death, but Hainsey is not cut out for tough matchups at this point in his career, and especially is not cut out for facing a line like Boston’s top group. The Leafs will hopefully just bite the bullet and play one of their better defensemen (likely Rielly, Muzzin) on their off-side instead. For what it’s worth, Hainsey is not playing top pairing minutes at 5v5... but he’s still playing more than he should, in my opinion.

What is a little more worrisome is the decline in minutes and responsibility for Travis Dermott.

Focus on the second bar, which shows Dermott’s minutes across every game this year, colour coded by game state. His PK minutes have been completely eliminated; this is an immediate consequence of Jake Muzzin usurping that role. However, his 5v5 minutes have also tumbled, and he’s being used more in the offensive zone than he was for the majority of the season (excepting a couple brief 5 game chunks). Going into this season, I was hoping to see Dermott essentially used as a top four defender, albeit in a nonstandard way, given the Leafs strength on the left side. Early on in the season, it appeared he would grow into that usage as the year progressed. For whatever reason, it hasn’t happened. Odds are, Dermott will be needed as a top four caliber defenseman at some point in the near future, potentially as early as next year. I would have liked to see the Leafs give him more of a chance to do so, and I hope that Dubas’ comments about experimenting portend increased minutes for Dermott as the season progresses and the Leafs playoff position and seeding becomes more secure.