Connor Brown’s deal may be sign of things to come for Leafs

Sportsnet's Shawn McKenzie recaps the opening day of training camp for the Toronto Maple Leafs where the players and coaches that are trying build off past success and not let it get to their heads.

NIAGARA FALLS, Ont. – In an alternate universe, Connor Brown might have been doing something else this weekend.

It certainly isn’t difficult to conjure up the circumstances that would have kept him away from here. Training camp opened in Boston this week without David Pastrnak present – he was a late arrival after having contract negotiations go down to the wire – while Andreas Athanasiou (Detroit) and Josh Anderson (Columbus) still haven’t reported to their respective teams.

Until recently, Brown was in the same situation as those young forwards – a restricted free agent waiting to sign his second NHL deal.

He happily removed any potential for drama with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Aug. 26 by agreeing to a $6.3-million, three-year extension that came in a shade below market value.

"I knew that I wasn’t going to drag it on into camp or anything like that," Brown said Friday after a scrimmage at Gale Centre. "I think it was good to get it done when we got it done. I just didn’t want to be a distraction in any way.

"I’m real excited to be a part of this team, which I think (has) a really good core, and I’m excited to be a part of it for three years."

Every player brings his own set of circumstances and priorities to a negotiation. In Brown’s case, he’s literally living out a childhood dream by playing in the city where he grew up for the team he’s always supported.

Still, he had a credible case to push for more money after a 20-goal, 36-point rookie campaign.

Consider that the Dallas Stars gave Radek Faksa $100,000 more annually on a three-year contract this summer after his 12-goal, 33-point year.

The key takeaway here is that Brown wanted to get something done well in advance of camp because he’s highly motivated to make things work. He senses a great opportunity with the Leafs and knows there’ll only be so much money and cap space to go around in the years ahead.

"Absolutely, that’s a big part (of it)," said Brown. "I really believe in what we’re doing here. I believe in the guys in the room and everything that management and the coaching staff have put together. I think we’re a good solid team.

"It’s a lot of fun to be a part of this."

When it comes time to negotiate pricier and more complicated contracts with some of his teammates, you can expect management to accentuate that last point as much as possible.

In fact, the Brown case offers a hint at how they might make the situation tenable.

As soon as next summer, the Leafs will attempt to define an internal salary structure that dictates a player’s value as much as the outside market. Once you get Auston Matthews slotted in at the top, you can move along to William Nylander, Mitchell Marner and so on.

A salary cap leaves each team managing a zero-sum situation, where money allocated to one player can’t go to another. There’s no guarantee everyone will buy in to the idea, but you’ve got a better chance with a team as close-knit as the Leafs that appears to be on the verge of something special.

As a bonus, team president Brendan Shanahan has lived it. He won three Stanley Cups over nine seasons in Detroit and took a little less to help keep that team under budget in the pre-salary cap era.

"That’s because I was in a winning environment that I enjoyed coming to work every day," Shanahan said this week on Prime Time Sports. "And so rather than work on hypotheticals (with the Leafs) we try to control what we can control, which is we want this to be the kind of place that – similar to like I just said – where I was in an organization at one point in my life where players knew that they could get more if they went to unrestricted free agency and knocked on all 30 doors, but instead we want to create an environment here in Toronto where players want to stay and they want to grow up together and have an era of hockey together."

In Brown, they have a 23-year-old who understood the appeal of that intrinsically.

Had he chosen to try and earn every last possible dollar, he might have missed the start of an important training camp. Withholding your services is about the only way to create leverage coming out of an entry-level deal.

Instead, he’ll be skating alongside teammates here on Saturday and Sunday, looking to catch Mike Babcock’s eye and earn a spot on one of the top three forward lines.

"Everyone’s gunning for jobs, you want to be in that top-nine," said Brown. "All you can do is control the controllables. You know, force their hand and play as good as you can."