ETOBICOKE, Ont. – Adam Brooks wasn’t crushed when his name wasn’t called during the 2014 NHL Draft.
Truth be told, after recording just 11 points that season with the WHL’s Regina Pats, he barely bothered even tuning in.
“I wouldn’t say I was too disappointed,” Brooks said. “After the first two seasons I had, I had it in my mind that I wasn’t going to get drafted that year.”
But after turning his career around – including recording 250 points over the last two seasons – Brooks is no longer an NHL afterthought.
Brooks participated in his second development camp as a Toronto Maple Leafs draftee after being selected in the fourth round, 92nd overall, last June.
Brooks wrapped up camp Wednesday centring former London Knights captain JJ Piccinich, Martins Dzierkals of the QMJHL’s Rouyn-Noranda Huskies and later Pierre Engvall, a 2014 seventh-rounder from Sweden. He had an assist in the scrimmage after scoring a goal the previous day.
The 21-year-old isn’t held in the same esteem as 2017 first-rounder Timothy Liljegren, for example. At five-foot-10 and 175 pounds, Brooks has room to grow and improve as he enters the pro ranks. However, after signing his entry-level deal in June, Brooks is thought to be one of the organization’s better future talents.
“There’s no question of his abilities. All you have to do is look at his record in junior,” Maple Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello said. “He’ll come to the Marlies. It’ll take a little time. There’s no question. It’s a jump. The American Hockey League is a good league. But we expect him to do well.”
There weren’t much in the way of expectations three years ago.
Back then, Brooks had just turned 18 and was coming off that 11-point campaign. He had one fewer point than the previous year as a league rookie – in five more games.
He was buried on the Pats depth chart. It looked like his career was stuck in neutral, or perhaps even rolling backwards.
“I needed to find a new gear if I was going to make the team (in Regina),” Brooks said. “When you’re a young kid and you make that jump (to the CHL), it’s frustrating when you go from a top guy in your bantam league to you see guys that you were ahead of playing lots and finding success in the league.”
While Brooks put more emphasis on his training that off-season, the biggest change was one that was out of his control.
The arrival of new ownership in Saskatchewan’s capital brought with it a new coaching staff. In came former NHL bench boss John Paddock to coach and run the team. Dave Struch, a longtime assistant with the rival Saskatoon Blades and their 2013-14 head coach, was brought in as Paddock’s right-hand man.
Brooks immediately had a supporter in Struch, who had seen potential in him from the opposing bench and thought of him as a “diamond in the rough.”
“The ability to skate and stickhandle and make plays, you could see that even when he didn’t play that much,” said Struch, Regina’s assistant coach and assistant GM. “You could imagine what could happen when he played more.”
After a slow start to the pre-season, Paddock told Brooks not to worry about his offensive contributions. Paddock’s Pats were going to play a fast-paced, puck-possession style, which suited him much better than old the dump-and-chase mentality. As a middle-aged major-junior player, goals and assists would naturally come easier than when he was younger.
With a fresh perspective, some added confidence and increased opportunity after several veterans were jettisoned, Brooks’s offensive output jumped to 62 points in 2014-15, a 51-point improvement.
As surprising as that spike was, it was small potatoes compared to what he would do the following season. Brooks earned 120 points to lead the WHL in scoring, enticing the Leafs to use a fourth-round pick on a player coming off a 19-year-old year – his third time being eligible for the draft.
Even Brooks didn’t think that was possible in his wildest dreams.
“After I had that third season where I was just under a point per game, my goal for the year after was to be a point per game or just better,” he said. “By Christmas I had 50 or 60. I was looking at the schedule and I was feeling good. Things just continued to get better after that.”
Brooks was named captain of the Pats this past season and all he did for an encore was add 10 points to his total, just missing out on a second straight WHL scoring crown. Teammate Sam Steel, a 2016 Anaheim Ducks first-rounder, edged him by a single point.
The playoffs were more of a struggle as Brooks suffered from a knee injury and a concussion, ailments that limited him to 17 of 23 games as the Pats reached the league final before losing to Seattle.
The Pats are hopeful the example Brooks set for his younger teammates will pay dividends next season when they host the Memorial Cup.
“The success that we hope to have, a lot of it is owed to him,” Struch said.
When his five-year junior career with the Pats career came to an end, Brooks had his name etched among the all-time greats of the CHL’s oldest franchises. According to Postmedia, he ranks sixth in assists (216), 10th in points (335) and third in regular-season games played (317). And don’t forget; that’s after just 23 points over his first two WHL seasons.
Brooks won’t duplicate those numbers in the pros. However, the Pats had him act at times as a shut-down centre, kill penalties and work with team scout and former NHL journeyman Mike Sillinger on his faceoffs to round out his skills.
“He’s a relentless person without the puck,” Struch said. “He does have it in him. It’s going to be fun to watch him grow into an NHL player.”
Adam Brooks – NHL player. He’s not there yet. But he’s certainly much closer than he was not so long ago.
“Deep down, I thought it was possible,” he said. “You always believe you can do things and if you can’t you’re sort of shorting yourself.
“Now that it’s happened, after being passed over twice and having signed a deal, I’ll think back to those times and see what hard work can do for you. It’s pretty satisfying for me to be here.”