The veteran presence.
The holy grail of hockey cliches, the player all NHL teams strive to acquire. Yet most end up with a cheap replica, in that the experience and intangibles provided are nullified by, well, that player not being very good.
However, on July 1st, 2019, Ottawa Senators GM Pierre Dorion had set his sights on the holy grail; a two-way forward entering his prime and seeking out a more prominent role. A player who could not only boost a promising young core off the ice but on it as well. A player who would go on to own the longest goal-scoring streak in franchise history.
The price for such an asset was steep. Bailing the Toronto Maple Leafs out of a cap crunch (not that it’s helped them all that much) certainly was not ideal. Was it worth it?
YES... HA HA HA... YES!
And two years later, the tale of Connor Brown continues to grow.
By now, we all know who he is, and what he can do. Drafted in 2012 by the Leafs, the sixth-round pick scored a then-career-high 36 points for his hometown team in the 2017-18 season. Fast-forward to the 2019 offseason, the Leafs lacked the room to sign regular-season superstar Mitch Marner and ended up trading Brown and Nikita Zaitsev for Cody Ceci, effectively going from overpaying a third-pair defenseman for five years, to doing so for just one.
Originally a bottom-six forward, Brown was given a new opportunity in the nation’s capital; a top-six role in which he’d play with Brady Tkachuk, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, and others. He delivered almost immediately in his first game as a Senator:
Brown finished the 2019-20 season with 43 points in 71 games, second to Tkachuk in team scoring, and went on to sign a three-year deal with the Senators in the offseason, worth $3.6M annually. With top prospect Drake Batherson ready to break into the NHL, and highly-regarded free agent Evgenii Dadonov in the fold, things were looking good on the right-wing.
Unfortunately, Dadonov didn’t meet expectations, scoring just 20 points in 55 games whilst settling into a bottom-six role for most of the year. Brown was relied on as a key offensive contributor for the second season in a row, and he came through once again. Despite scoring just six goals in his first 35 games, he then scored one goal in each of his next eight games; a franchise record.
That’s absolutely insane. In the same stratosphere as the likes of Steve Yzerman, Jaromir Jagr, and Teemu Selanne. Let me stress that this madman was previously drawing comparisons to Erik Condra with his finishing ability.
Brown finished the campaign with 21 goals and 14 assists in 56 games, or about 51 points in a full 82-game season.
If you look at his numbers this year, one thing that may jump out at you is his shooting percentage; 17.1% is pretty far above his career average, so the Senators shouldn’t bank on him repeating the 30-goal pace he scored at this year. However, taking his shot totals and scaling to a full season, while factoring in his new career shooting percentage of 12.3%, Brown still hits 22 goals, which is great value for his $3.6M cap hit.
There’s always some luck involved when it comes to finishing on scoring chances, but Brown does a whole lot to consistently earn those chances. Here, you’ll see him win a board battle, move into a high-danger area (the front of the net), and deflect a point-shot past the goaltender:
We can also look at his potential effectiveness as a top-six player through a different lens: What kind of impact does Brown have on our top players? On most nights, Ottawa’s top line consisted of Brady Tkachuk, Josh Norris, and a rotation on the right-wing. Using Natural Stat Trick’s Line Tool, we can determine how the “Chuk Norris” combo fared at 5-on-5 play, both with and without Brown. In terms of Corsi (shot attempts), they generated 54.10% with Brown, and just 46.46% without, so we can determine Brown had a positive impact on that group’s ability to drive play and spend more time in the offensive zone.
Additionally, we can look at his impact on xGF (expected goals based on the type and location of shot attempts), which comes out to 52.80% with Brown, and 52.34% without, a much smaller albeit still positive discrepancy. In particular, Brown is slightly holding back the pair offensively, but he’s significantly boosting them defensively. That’s a good trade-off, since Tkachuk still generates plenty of offense regardless of his linemates, and needs that extra support in his own end to really thrive.
Brown is also an asset on the penalty kill, though not in the way you’d expect. Most people would define a good penalty killer as someone who limits the scoring opportunities of the opposing power-play as much as possible. Brown doesn’t actually do this very well. Natural Stat Trick lists 150 forwards with at least fifty minutes of 4-on-5 play during the season. In terms of shot attempts against per sixty minutes, Brown ranks in the 41st percentile, meaning he’s better than 41 percent of eligible forwards at shot suppression. That’s slightly below average, and it looks worse when you consider unblocked shots against (25th percentile) and expected goals against (24th percentile).
Here’s the good news; and if you’ve watched Sens hockey this season you know what’s coming; one second the opposing quarterback is handling the puck along his own blueline, and the very next moment it’s in the back of the net.
Oh, you’re asking what’s so great about that? Of course, I should’ve made it clear before, the puck goes into his own net.
See, Connor Brown is a major threat to score while shorthanded, thanks to his relentless approach to defense. If he’s able to knock the puck loose at the line, he’s gone on an odd-man rush, on which he’s recently done a much better job at converting.
Although he doesn’t score on the initial shot here, he gets to the puck before a number of Leafs before finishing the job:
In terms of expected goals for during 4-on-5 shorthanded play, Brown ranks 12th-highest out of the aforementioned group of 150, or in the 92nd percentile. So, while Brown isn’t preventing many quality chances, he’s generating tons of offense (relatively speaking) to make up for it; using the combined xGF%, he’s a 79th percentile penalty killer.
With all of this in mind, is the second-line production we’ve seen from Brown over the past two seasons sustainable? Under the right circumstances, absolutely. Deploy him with a skilled offensive player and the two will help each other out; for a budget team like Ottawa, getting the most out of each player in your lineup is crucial. The added scoring on the PK is icing on the cake.
Defensively sound, but still a threat to score. A veteran leader, but still able to keep up with the young core.
Not to mention he’s also a former Toronto Maple Leaf, and if these two are any indication, there may be some big goals in his future with Ottawa.