Weekly Question: Who do you give the first opportunity to? Logan Brown or Josh Norris?

Whenever the 2020-21 season gets away, there’s a gaping hole in the middle of the ice. Which one of these former first-round picks should get the first crack at filling it?

When The Athletic’s Corey Pronman put out his list of the best under-23 players within NHL organizations, eight Ottawa Senators prospects made the list. That’s a high number relative to other teams, and reflects the fact that Pronman has the Senators ranked with the third best U23 system in the league.

The list comprised of 155 players mainly drafted between 2016 and 2020 and there was a notable omission among the top talent: Ottawa’s 2016 first-round pick, Logan Brown.

That ranking, combined with the NHL squad’s lack of centre depth, the drafting of Tim Stützle, and Brown’s injury history has generated plenty of discussion on where the former 11th overall pick fits in the organization — if at all. When Pronman was asked about Brown directly, he mused that he’s unranked not because of a lack of talent, but because of the uncertainty around his projected career. I think that same concern rings true for many Sens fans.

Every drop doesn’t have to result in a rise to balance things out, but among prospects at the centre-ice position, that’s been the case with Brown’s compatriot, Josh Norris. Born a year apart, Norris’ career has a lot of similarities to Brown even if they play the game so differently. Both suited up for the U.S. National Team Development Program, but diverged when Brown joined the Windsor Spitfires while Norris went to the University of Michigan. Both had a mediocre Draft+1 season, and missed plenty of time with injury in their Draft+2 year.

I think it’s from this point, their Draft+3 season, where their perceptions started to change in the eyes of most fans, and in a way that might not be the most fair to Logan Brown. Take their basic AHL stat-lines via EliteProspects:

Logan Brown: 56GP: 14G, 28A, 42P, fourth in team scoring by points-per-game

Belleville in 2018-19: 0.539% winning percentage, 3.00 GF/G, 3.00 GA/G

Josh Norris: 56GP: 31G, 30A, 61P, fourth in team scoring by points-per-game

Belleville in 2019-20: 0.643% winning percentage, 3.71 GF/G, 3.13 GA/G

While Norris’ counting stats are certainly indicative of a more successful first season in the league (and he received the league-wide accolades to cement that), both provided a similar level of scoring production as indicated by points-per-game. A big difference, however, is the quality of their teammates, and you can see the impact of that in Belleville’s winning percentage and their goals for-per-game rate. Norris was a big part of Belleville’s improvement and was surrounded with more talented linemates that could buoy his success.

While I always shake my fist angrily at the lack of advanced data for the AHL, we’ve been lucky to have good, consistent coverage of the BSens courtesy of Spencer Blake, who often comments on a player’s usage. Under Troy Mann in 2018-19, Logan Brown played first-line minutes alongside Nick Paul and rookie sensation Drake Batherson; while in 2019-20, Josh Norris played second-line minutes as Jordan Szwarz was the team’s top pivot with Alex Formenton manning the wing. We can infer from this that Brown likely had more chances to score given his extra minutes, but also faced tougher competition with the opposing team’s top defenders jumping over the boards when he was on the ice. The depth of this year’s BSens squad meant that Mann’s team could just tire you out with talented players spread across three lines.

Brown split his time between Ottawa (23GP) and Belleville (25GP) this season and actually out-scored Norris on a points-per-game basis (1.12) — a mark that ranks 34th among U24 AHL skaters this decade. Despite his statistical similarity to Norris, Brown missed a chunk of games due to injury for the fourth consecutive season, though, and it’s this inconsistency that has everyone duly worried.

The two major differences between the two players, and potentially the most important in terms of their playing time for this upcoming season, are 1) their differing style-of-play, and 2) their status for the upcoming expansion draft.

Brown is a 6-foot-6 centre who, despite the success of Drake Batherson and the potential of Tim Stützle, is the organization’s most capable playmaker. His mammoth frame means that his puck protection skills are excellent, and he mixes that with deft hands that allow him to make pro-level opponents look silly at times. He isn’t afraid to attack the middle of the ice and can facilitate a powerplay from the left half-wall. His much-talked-about weakness is his pace of play, which is less to do about his ability to make decisions and more to do with his foot speed.

Norris is a 6-foot-2 centre with a balanced offensive toolkit. He knows he’s both a shooting and passing threat, and uses that to his advantage when manipulating opponents in space. This sense works well with his sharp acceleration and high compete level to make him a threat every time he’s on the ice. On the powerplay, Norris usually plays for the one-timer on the right faceoff circle. His defensive game needed work in Belleville, but he showed consistent improvement as the year went on.

When they were drafted, almost all reports had Logan Brown listed as a high-risk, high-reward player — someone who could potentially be a top-line centre, but also not be in the league. On the other hand, Josh Norris had a safe floor as a top-nine centre bare minimum, but many questioned whether he could reach his top-six upside. After Norris’ most recent AHL campaign, he projects as a second-line centre for a good NHL team.

While choosing a player of this importance around a head coach that, statistics show (especially in Ottawa), likely won’t be around after another couple of seasons, it’s clear that Josh Norris is more likely to play the “D.J. Smith way” — where centres cover a lot of ice, supporting the defence down low by shrinking the ice at the top of the defensive faceoff circles, facilitating the puck transfer, and utilizing wingers in transition for the offensive zone entry. His speed and compete amplify Brown’s weakness. That being said, there’s merit to having Josh Norris play top-line minutes in Belleville, at least to start. For one: he didn’t play that role this season, and could rise to the challenge on a weaker Belleville team. More importantly: Brown is eligible to be selected in the Seattle expansion draft and Norris isn’t, meaning that this season is likely a make-it or break-it year for Brown in the Senators organization. Currently, he’s on the bubble to get protected, but with many talented forward prospects, the team can’t afford to use a protection slot on a player with this much uncertainty in their projection.

There continues to be speculation swirling around the Senators about potentially adding a veteran centre to play top-nine minutes, and I’ve always been against it for one reason: Logan Brown and Josh Norris are likely both NHL-ready at this point. In fact, I would quicker entertain moving Colin White back over to right-wing to make room for both of them this season than to stifle their NHL playing time. That doesn’t look likely, however, and with White, RFA Chris Tierney, and Artem Anisimov on the roster, there appears to be only room for one of them to line-up down the middle to start the season.

Who would you pick?

Who should make the team as a centre out of training camp?

Josh Norris100
Logan Brown186
Find a way to have them both play centre110
Find a way to have them both on the team151
Other (comments)7

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