Other Leaf rook­ies fly­ing un­der radar

Brown, Hy­man, Sosh­nikov hit fast for­ward on ca­reers, Zait­sev finds home on D

Toronto Star - - SPORTS - KEVIN MCGRAN SPORTS RE­PORTER

In any other year there’d be a great deal of ex­cite­ment re­gard­ing Con­nor Brown, or Zach Hy­man, or Nikita Sosh­nikov, or Nikita Zait­sev.

They are, after all, rook­ies on the sto­ried Maple Leafs mak­ing their way in the NHL, each a late bloomer in his own way hav­ing faced no short­age of ob­sta­cles to get here.

But this sea­son they are sim­ply the “other” guys. They aren’t ex­actly lost in the shuf­fle, but still not given their due with the hype sur­round­ing Aus­ton Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Ny­lan­der, mak­ing strong early claims to the Calder Tro­phy.

“I just want to be part of this team,” said Brown. “I’m not in this for any sort of at­ten­tion. It doesn’t bother me at all that they’re in the spot­light. They’re all great kids and they’re do­ing well. It’s a good vibe in here.”

While those three — 19-year-olds Marner and Matthews, and Ny­lan- der at 20 — cre­ate high­light-reel plays, the Leafs would not be on a three-game win streak with­out the con­tri­bu­tions of their older rook­ies.

“Those guys (Hy­man, Brown, Sosh­nikov, Zait­sev), they play right ev­ery night,” said coach Mike Bab­cock. “Zait­sev is a real good player who is just get­ting com­fort­able. Hy­man and Brown just do ev­ery­thing right. Those are guys you can count on.”

Of the bunch, Brown’s re­ally should be the team’s feel-good story: a lo­cal kid who grew up lov­ing the Leafs; a late-round pick; un­der­sized when drafted at about five-foot-seven, Brown has grown to six-feet; a gifted scorer in ju­nior and the Amer­i­can Hockey League, Brown is mor­ph­ing into a check­ing for­ward.

“He’s turned him­self into a pretty good player,” said Greg McKegg of the Florida Pan­thers, Brown’s for­mer team­mate with the OHL Erie Ot­ters and AHL Toronto Mar­lies. “He was a lot smaller. It’s crazy. He was tiny, but he al­ways had that work ethic. He was su­per-com­pet­i­tive.”

Brown is 22 and play­ing on what some call the Leafs’ top line, while oth­ers call it the third line, with Na- zem Kadri and Leo Ko­marov. They are tasked with shut­ting down the other team’s top unit, but Bab­cock wants them to do it by play­ing of­fence, hem­ming the op­po­si­tion in their own zone. Brown has a goal and an as­sist and is mi­nus-four.

Brown’s su­per-com­pet­i­tive­ness got him here. It’s the same char­ac­ter­is­tic that drives Hy­man and Sosh­nikov.

Hy­man, 24, went the univer­sity route, rein­vent­ing his game as a de­fen­sive for­ward after be­ing an of­fen- sive star in Tier 2 ju­nior. He has man­aged only one point while play­ing with Ny­lan­der (12 points) and Matthews (11), but seems quite happy to have his line­mates take the spot­light. He kills penal­ties while they pile up points on the power play, usu­ally with Kadri. “It’s fun play­ing with those two,” said Hy­man. “I’m just happy to be on the line.”

Sosh­nikov, 23, plays at break­neck speed and tends to get hurt a lot — an in­jury cost him train­ing camp time. But he scored his first goal of the sea­son on Satur­day night — “I was pretty happy, but it’s good to get a goal on the board” — and has two points in three games since his re­call from the Mar­lies. He’s made the fourth line a lit­tle more dan­ger­ous.

Zait­sev, 25, might be the most im­por­tant ad­di­tion. Signed as a free agent from the KHL, he’s earned prime power-play time, seems to fit in as a top-four de­fence­man — with six as­sists — and should get bet­ter the more com­fort­able he be­comes. Brown, Hy­man and Sosh­nikov were prob­a­bly good enough to play full-time in the NHL last year, but stayed with the Mar­lies for more sea­son­ing. It was time well spent.

“They’re not kids like those other guys (Matthews, Marner and Ny­lan­der),” said Bab­cock. “They’ve gone through it. They played in the Amer­i­can league. They’ve played longer, so they know how to play. They’re prob­a­bly not as gifted, so they had to play right to get on the ice.”

RICK MADONIK/TORONTO STAR

“Those guys, they play right ev­ery night,” coach Mike Bab­cock says of Con­nor Brown (top), Nikita Sosh­nikov, Nikita Zait­sev and Zach Hy­man.

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