Leafs’ Connor Brown hoping patience pays off in NHL debut

Connor Brown and William Nylander discuss how seeing so many familiar faces makes the transition to the big club easier, and coach Babcock admires Brown’s skills and respect for the game.

TORONTO – Some things almost seem fated.

You can only imagine Connor Brown’s surprise when he turned up at Air Canada Centre before his NHL debut on Thursday and found himself assigned No. 16 by the Toronto Maple Leafs.

It was a familiar sight: While growing up in Toronto as a fan of Darcy Tucker he always played with that number. He even had a Leafs sweater as a kid featuring it.

“Yeah, (I liked) Darcy Tucker, but mine had ‘Brown’ (on the back),” he said. “I guess I got it custom-made.”

Now he’s got a second customized No. 16 – only this one will become a memento from his first NHL game against the Florida Panthers.

Brown called that an “added bonus” to a moment that probably would have arrived sooner if not for the fractured ankle he suffered while blocking a shot in the American Hockey League at the end of October.

The sixth-round pick has steadily risen through the ranks of the organization since being drafted in 2012, turning heads with a 61-point rookie season for the Marlies a year ago and catching coach Mike Babcock’s eye with a strong training camp in the fall.

“He’s going to be a good NHL player for a long period of time,” said Babcock.

There was plenty of internal debate back in September about whether he should start the season with the Leafs. But management ultimately decided to send all of the organization’s young players to the AHL.

Now most of them have found their way to the ACC – with Brown acknowledging he was a little disappointed when forwards William Nylander, Nikita Soshnikov, Zach Hyman and Kasperi Kapanen were recalled on Feb. 29, and he wasn’t.

But deep down he knew it was only a matter of time.

“I felt like I was pretty close with the way I was playing in the American league and battling back from injury,” said Brown. “I felt like I was getting better and better. So it’s really nice to be recognized and I’m extremely excited to be here.”

It certainly looks like he’ll be given an opportunity to show his best, with Brown slotted in Leo Komarov’s spot on the top line beside Nazem Kadri and Soshnikov. He was also part of Toronto’s second power-play unit at Thursday’s morning skate.

There’s no telling if he’ll even remain with the Leafs for a second game since he’s up on an emergency recall for Komarov. The Finn is dealing with a minor issue that Babcock indicated wouldn’t keep him out of a playoff game and Brown will have to be sent back to the AHL when Komarov is ready to play again.

Still, Brown is clearly living in the moment.

“It’s going to be awesome tonight,” he said. “Just being on that ice at the ACC (is exciting). Obviously, playing pre-season is pretty cool, but this will be a whole other step up from that.”

It’s also a pretty nice reward after enduring a 12-week recovery from his ankle injury. Babcock believes the slight winger – he’s listed at five-foot-11, 170 pounds – was able to add some muscle while rehabbing with the Leafs’ training staff.

He certainly hasn’t missed a beat since returning to the AHL last month, putting up nine goals and 20 points in 20 games for the Marlies.

“He did a great job and came back firing,” said Nylander.

There was some comfort for Brown in seeing so many familiar faces inside the Leafs dressing room. He’ll be the 10th player to make his NHL debut for the team this season and hopes to make the same impact Hyman, Soshnikov and Nylander have.

“They seem to be fitting in just fine,” said Brown. “They seem to be playing with a lot of confidence, which is huge and something I’m going to try to bring tonight. (It) will be a challenge but I’ll push for it.

“Just play my game and do the things that got me here.”