The Toronto Maple Leafs are not known for their player development and savvy drafting repertoire. Their roster includes great scorers like Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, a speedy, two-way talent in James van Riesmsdyk, and All-Star defenseman Dion Phaneuf, none of which were drafted by the Maple Leafs. You could argue that the best pick in the last five years was defenseman Morgan Rielly, their first pick (fifth overall) in 2012.
But there is another player picked in that same draft that is shaping up to be a tremendous steal for the Leafs: RW Connor Brown. Brown was picked in the 6th round, 151 spots after Rielly and 121 spots after fellow Etobicoke, Ontario native and Maple Leafs draft pick Matt Finn.
His Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) made it to the conference finals where they lost to Finn and the Guelph Storm. The success of Erie is attributed in large part to Brown’s incredible season. He led the OHL and the entire CHL in scoring with 128 points in 68 games, and was named the OHL Most Outstanding Player.
One of the most positive things to take away from Brown’s development is that as he gets better so does his team. He scored 20+ goals in each of his first two season in Erie, but was a -61 and the Otters finished last in the Midwest both years. In 2013-14 he was a +44 and Erie had their best season and most successful playoff run since the 2001-02 season.
Always known as a great goal-scorer, Brown dropped in the draft because of questions about his skating ability and strength. Many teams also wondered if he could develop into an all-around scorer, not just someone with the propensity to put the puck in the net.
He silenced a lot of those criticisms this year. His 83 assists were tops in the OHL this past season, proving he has a knack for finding the open player and using his scoring proficiency to draw in defenders to create open looks for his teammates.
Although he stands only 5’11” 170 pounds, he plays grittier than his size would amplify. He has drawn comparisons to Patrick Sharp as a great goal-scoring forward who has a nose for the puck and battles for every opportunity to gain it and put it in the back of the net. He will have to get stronger if he intends to bring that sort of mentality to the NHL.
His skating has gotten better since his draft year, but is still something of concern and he will have to work on it before he can crack the Leaf’s lineup. His quickness has always been a question mark and whether he has the ability to skate around NHL defenseman in order to showcase his indelible offensive ability.
In the OHL playoffs, NHL defense prospects Darnell Nurse (EDM) of Sault Ste. Marie, Nick Ebert (LAK) and fellow Leafs prospect Matt Finn of Guelph had trouble slowing down Brown’s torrid scoring pace that he carried over from the regular season, proving he can overcome his lack of foot speed when needed.
It seems like Brown has proven himself enough at the junior level and it is time to see what he can do at the professional level. The Toronto Marlies (AHL) would welcome a scorer like Brown to a team that is likely to lose some of its top point producers to the Leafs next season.
The organization is hoping last seasons success is not a tour de force for Brown and that he will keep developing his overall game. He will have training camp to showcase his abilities against a professional defense and how he plays with other great scorers like Kessel.
If he impresses at camp and dominates in the AHL you may see Randy Carlyle give him a few games with the big club just to get his feet wet.