Brown not afraid of some com­pe­ti­tion

Be­ing dropped to fourth line in camp acts as mo­ti­va­tion for sec­ond-year for­ward

Toronto Star - - SPORTS - KEVIN MCGRAN SPORTS REPORTER

NI­A­GARA FALLS, ONT.— Con­nor Brown has over­come big­ger ob­sta­cles than this.

The ar­rival of Patrick Mar­leau has meant a de­mo­tion — at least through the early days of camp — to the fourth line for Brown, which could be deemed a slap in the face for a 20-goal scorer.

“It’s a com­pet­i­tive camp,” Brown said. “We have a lot of good for­wards com­pet­ing for ice time, com­pet­ing for jobs. It’s good to have that in­house com­pet­i­tive­ness.”

Ever the team player, Brown has been skat­ing with Matt Martin and Fin­nish rookie cen­tre Miro Aal­to­nen through the early days of train­ing camp. Mar­leau is on Nazem Kadri’s left side, with Leo Ko­marov mov­ing from left wing to Brown’s old spot on right.

“He has that speed,” Kadri said of Mar­leau. “With Leo on the op­po­site side, it gives us that grit and phys­i­cal­ity, so I think it all mixes well.”

Mean­while, Aus­ton Matthews’ and Tyler Bozak’s lines have re­mained un­changed.

Leafs coach Mike Bab­cock — who pointed out on the eve of camp that he has “10 top-9 play­ers” — sounded as if he was keen to know how Brown was go­ing to take this devel­op­ment as the odd man out.

“He’s not tak­ing this for an an­swer. He looks at the lineup, he doesn’t think this is re­ally go­ing to hap­pen,” Bab­cock said. “I wouldn’t worry too much about Brownie.”

Brown is likely to take the de­mo­tion more as mo­ti­va­tion rather than in­sult, as he has most of his hockey ca­reer.

He was once deemed too small to make the NHL, drafted at a gen­er­ously listed five-foot-10; he grew to a solid six-feet. He was once deemed de­fen­sively un­sound, post­ing a mi­nus-72 for the Erie Ot­ters in 2011-12. A later-round pick (156th over­all in 2012) he was a long-shot to make the NHL.

He was re­warded for his rookie sea­son with a three-year, $6.3 mil­lion (U.S.) con­tract, cap-friendly con­tract that is recog­ni­tion for his value as a winger who can play up and down the lineup.

“That has been the case through­out my ca­reer,” said Brown. “I think I can play in dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions. That’s what I pride my­self on, to be trusted in all sit­u­a­tions.

“What I do on the ice doesn’t change no mat­ter who I’m play­ing with. I try to stay con­sis­tent no mat­ter who I’m play­ing with or play­ing against.

“For me, day to day, the game should be the same.”

Brown’s 20th goal was an im­por­tant one. For him, it kicked in a bonus for a few ex­tra dol­lars. For the team, it ral­lied the Leafs to a vic­tory over Pitts­burgh — Brown tied the game, Kasperi Ka­pa­nen won it — in the 81st game of sea­son, a game in which the Leafs clinched a play­off berth.

“Ob­vi­ously, the big three (Matthews, Mitch Marner, Wil­liam Ny­lan­der) get talked about a lot,” Martin said. “He (Brown) can play in all cir­cum­stances, in any sit­u­a­tion I think he’s prob­a­bly one of the more un­der­rated play­ers on the team.

“He can skate, and he’s tal­ented, and he grinds,” Martin said. “I know a lot of peo­ple don’t like that word. He gets pucks in. He gets them back. He works. He’s not a flashy guy. He’s a hard-nosed guy, plays the game very hard. “

Noth­ing is set in stone, and there are two other po­ten­tial fourth lines also work­ing out.

One fea­tures vet­eran cen­tre Do­minic Moore — who was signed for the role — play­ing be­tween Nikita Sosh- nikov and Ka­pa­nen, both of whom au­di­tioned on the fourth line last sea­son.

The other saw Eric Fehr, with Ben Smith and Josh Leivo. Again, those three had fourth-line roles in small doses last year, giv­ing the Leafs a glut of NHL-ex­pe­ri­enced for­wards com­pet­ing for lim­ited jobs. “It’s com­pet­i­tive,” Bab­cock said. “They’re go­ing to drop the puck in ex­hi­bi­tion. I’m go­ing to stand there and watch and they’re go­ing to play. They’re go­ing to de­cide who’s on the team.

“Now, play­ers, when you say that, they don’t re­ally be­lieve it’s the truth. It’s 100 per cent the truth. They de­cide who plays, they de­cide who plays on the power play, the penalty kill, they de­cide it all. I just watch.

“Lots of times you get it wrong at the start, but over a pe­riod of time you get it right.”

CLAUS AN­DER­SEN/GETTY IM­AGES

Be­ing bumped to the fourth line hasn’t dis­cour­aged Brown. “It’s good to have that in-house com­pet­i­tive­ness.”

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