By now I’m sure you’ve all seen the report from Elliotte Friedman that Connor Brown may want to test the free-agent market next summer and is not a sure thing to re-sign with the Ottawa Senators. We should make it clear up front that Friedman never said that Brown wants out, or that he can’t be re-signed for the right price, but the clear implication was that Brown has a price in mind — and if the Senators aren’t willing to go to that number, then it’d be wise of them to at least look around the league to see what teams are willing to offer in exchange for the right winger.
Just like almost every Sens fan, my preference would be that Brown remains a member of the team. He contributes both offensively and defensively, and he seems like a good leader off the ice. While I’d be hesitant to offer him $5M+ on a longer-term deal, I got the sense on Twitter that a lot of fans are underestimating how losing Brown would impact the roster. It might end up being the sensible move to trade him, but doing so would put the Senators in an even more challenging position if they are trying to be a playoff team next season.
Let’s consider the Senators' forward group as it stands:
We can comfortably say that Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stützle, Josh Norris, and Drake Batherson are bona fide top-6 forwards and are locks to be key contributors next season. The next wingers on the depth chart are Alex Formenton and Connor Brown, and although Brown has had a lot of ice-time since coming to Ottawa, in a perfect world I’d love to have him on the 3rd line of a contending team. Mathieu Joseph’s name has been brought up as a potential breakout top-6 player, but he only played 11 games for Ottawa (albeit, he was fantastic considering he had 12 points) and his career-high in points is 30; he should be viewed as found money rather than a lock to contribute on the top two lines.
For argument's sake, let’s assume Brown stays in Ottawa and in the top-6. They still very clearly need to add another top winger to the mix, and Pierre Dorion has even admitted as much. Ottawa finished 26th in goals per game and has a long way to go. It’s not too hard to envision Stützle, Formenton, and Joseph taking steps forward, and perhaps Ridly Greig makes an impact, but that still likely doesn’t move the needle nearly enough. This is not a groundbreaking thesis.
But if Brown leaves, the situation becomes much more complicated. The depth chart might look something like this:
Don’t get me wrong, there are still some good players in there, especially if Pinto and Greig can cement themselves as full-time NHLers. But a playoff team can’t have both Formenton and Joseph on their second line, nor does pinning your hopes on two young players breaking out seem like a prudent thing to be doing. That lineup could succeed, but they’d need everything to go right, and as we saw last year, just a few injuries can derail a lot of their plans. The Senators don’t have much injury insurance besides Egor Sokolov, who is far from a sure thing. And all of this going right likely only means a jump up to the middle of the pack — it’s virtually impossible to imagine a top-10 scoring finish from this group.
I haven’t been a fan of Ottawa’s depth for a while, and losing Brown would add to that problem. One way to survive this would be to look for a trade where the Senators could acquire a similarly-skilled player (or even better) à la Paul for Joseph. That’s easier said than done, but perhaps the Minnesota Wild would be interested in Brown (plus more) in a Kevin Fiala deal. That is the only kind of scenario where I feel better about Brown leaving the team because otherwise they’ll be left with a sizeable hole in the middle of the lineup.
If the Senators were able to move Brown++ for Fiala and add another mystery name on the second line (Jesse Puljujarvi perhaps?), then all of a sudden things begin to look much better:
By adding one winger and upgrading on Brown, the third line looks potentially elite instead of high-risk, and that’s not even including the potential for Greig to move up the lineup. So there does exist a scenario where losing Brown is fine, but Pierre Dorion has to counteract that with two other better additions.
Brown is not a star player, but he’s done everything that’s been asked of him and has been a big contributor over the past three seasons. He leads all Senators forwards in average ice-time per game at 19:32 during that time and is second on the team in points with 117 in 191 games. He’s also played a lot while short-handed, leading Senators forwards with 2:41 of PK time per game. Ottawa has some other forwards that can kill penalties such as Alex Formenton, Shane Pinto, Mark Kastelic, Parker Kelly, and Austin Watson, but not all of them are proven.
Brown’s not in the upper echelon of skilled players on the team, but he’s exactly the type of player that contending teams are always looking for. Think of Andre Burakovsky, Valeri Nichushkin, Ondrej Palat, Zach Hyman, and even Nick Paul to a lesser extent—all guys who have never been top-line players but who add a great amount of depth to the lineup and have been difference-makers in the playoffs. For a team that needs to get to the playoffs this season, Brown is exactly the type of player that they should be looking for, and losing him would hurt their chances of success.
Moving on from Brown might end up being the smart long-term move, especially if the then 29-year-old is (fairly) looking to earn one last big contract. The Senators can’t afford to have another Colin White situation on the books for somebody who could be pushed to the third line eventually, but we need to also acknowledge that it would hurt the team on the ice as well as their morale. Brown seems to be well-liked and a veteran presence, and it would be another disappointing, if perhaps understandable, instance where a veteran cannot stay with the team.
Connor Brown is not a goner just yet, but not matter what comes next we should take some time to appreciate what he’s done for the team — just in case he has played his last game in Ottawa.