Brown not afraid of some competition
Being dropped to fourth line in camp acts as motivation for second-year forward
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.”
Being bumped to the fourth line hasn’t discouraged Brown. “It’s good to have that in-house competitiveness.”