Other Leaf rookies flying under radar
Brown, Hyman, Soshnikov hit fast forward on careers, Zaitsev finds home on D
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.”
“Those guys, they play right every night,” coach Mike Babcock says of Connor Brown (top), Nikita Soshnikov, Nikita Zaitsev and Zach Hyman.