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Connor Brown: At the Centre of the World Stage

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Ottawa’s standout became an unlikely hero at the international level.

Canada v Norway: Group B - 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship

There’s something of a “ho-hum” mentality whenever Canada manages to capture gold at the World Hockey Championship. Critics are eager to point out that many of the world’s best players don’t even attend the tournament, still within the throes of the Stanley Cup playoffs, so it’s only natural that the Canadians’ sheer number of NHL talent — when contrasted with those of other, smaller nations — should carry them to victory.

This is a fair assertion. Canada has won a tournament-leading six of the last 21 gold medals, but they also failed to medal 10 times within that span. This is in stark contrast with the World Junior Championship, for example, where Canada has won the tournament eight times since the year 2000, and failed to medal only four times.

But the relative parity of the World Hockey Championships only serves to make the tournament more interesting overall. In the absence of Connor McDavid, there is Connor Brown.

This year’s Canada team was the first to ever win gold after losing their first three games of the tournament, and while much of the credit for their success deservedly went to late-addition, and tournament MVP Andrew Mangiapane of the Calgary Flames, Brown’s impact on the Canadian team was undeniable.

The 27 year-old Ottawa Senators standout came seemingly out of nowhere to emerge as one of the Canadian team’s de facto leaders up front. Playing top-six minutes, and anchoring the top penalty killing unit, the Toronto native proved to be invaluable to Canada in every sense of the game.

Oh, and he just happened to lead the tournament in scoring with 16 points. Brown scored two goals and 14 assists to take home the scoring title, capping off his remarkable 2021 with a helper on Nick Paul’s dazzling golden goal.

Brown’s success at the World Championship comes on the heels of a fantastic season with the Senators — which our own Shaan Malik wrote about in this exceptional piece — where he finished second on the Senators in scoring, trailing Brady Tkachuk by just one point.

Brown freely admits that his poise carried over from Ottawa to Latvia.

“Confidence. I feel like I just love hockey again,” he told media after the gold medal win, “Playing my game, [it’s been a] lot of fun.”

The confidence has been evident. Brown’s 35 points in a 56 game season with the Senators had him on pace to break his career-high for the second straight year, but it was his performance at the World Championships that has shown the best may be yet to come for Brown. When it was announced that he’d be on Team Canada’s roster for the Worlds, it was thought that Brown’s role would be a predominantly defensive one, building on his penalty kill success with Paul, and perhaps chipping in some secondary scoring.

Evidently, no one informed Brown of this.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Brown’s international success has been that his production hasn’t come from the rebounds and secondary assists befitting of a bottom-six forward. Brown stood out on the powerplay, and at even strength, with some of the tournament’s prettiest passing plays. There are seemingly infinite examples, but one only has to look to the gold medal game, where Brown assisted on all three Canadian goals.

Throughout the Worlds, it wasn’t Brown’s defensive prowess, or rock-solid penalty killing that made him one of the tournament’s best forwards. It was his vision, looking like that of a top-six player, and ability to find teammates through tight spaces that saw him shine on the world stage.

The simple fact of the matter is that these are not plays made by a grinder, or true bottom-six player. No one is arguing the fact that Brown is likely a high-end third-liner on a team with realistic Stanley Cup ambitions, but what he’s shown in both Ottawa and Latvia is that he’s not out of place higher in the lineup. Whether this can be attributed to improvement in Brown’s game, or skills that he simply has never had the chance to showcase, he’s proving that his offensive abilities are on par with those in his own end of the ice.

If you need more proof, here’s a clip from Brown’s four-assist game against Italy.

With the eyes of the hockey world firmly on Brown, and his fellow Senators teammates in Paul and Jacob Bernard-Docker, fans of the team can’t help but speculate as to what comes next for Brown, with the forward locked into Ottawa through the year 2024. Again, it’s undeniable that the team would like to have another scoring winger ahead of Brown in the lineup, alongside Drake Batherson, but one can’t help but wonder if this is just the beginning of Brown’s prime.

With career seasons in back-to-back years, and a dominant international performance now under his belt, Brown has all but solidified himself as a core member of the Senators as they enter the late stages of their rebuild. It’s no secret that the team would like to score more goals, and while the World Championships are certainly not the Olympics, Brown’s performance of late shows that he’s capable of contributing to that cause.

While many in Toronto feel that Brown will always be a Leaf at heart, those in the capital are likely beginning to peg him as a Senator for life. It’s hard to argue that a 2D logo — and a red maple leaf instead of blue — are beginning to fit him nicely.