TORONTO – If you believe in karma, you believe in Connor Brown.
As Auston Matthews sniped a three-on-three 4-3 overtime winner for the undefeated Toronto Maple Leafs on Thanksgiving night, slapping an exclamation mark on as classic an early-regular-season hockey game as you’ll see, the top three trending phrases on Twitter were as follows:
Brown scored 20 big-league goals as a rookie, yet was widely regarded as the fourth-, fifth- or even sixth-best freshman on his own hockey club, depending how lofty you viewed the work of Nikita Zaitsev and Zach Hyman in 2016-17.
When Brown’s contract came due, he was Toronto’s last restricted free agent to get paid this summer.
The Leafs’ cheque-writers gave Zaitsev more than twice as much as Brown’s $2.1 million AAV over three years. They gave Hyman $2.25 million times four years. Brown had twice as many goals as Hyman and took a third of the penalties. (To be fair, Toronto has yet to purchase a single one of Brown’s UFA years.)
As soon as the Leafs signed Patrick Marleau for $18.75 million as a free agent, plunging their winger depth to Mariana Trench levels, Brown gracefully and immediately surrendered his sweater number (12) and his place on Toronto’s third line to the veteran without a peep.
Brown said he was cool with a dinner as payment. He said this after skating an extra 20 minutes during an optional practice a week before training camp opened.
We hope he ordered dessert.
Remember: This is a player who outscored Connor McDavid in each of the two OHL years they shared with the Erie Otters.
So, Brown, a top-six-calibre NHL forward, has been walking around the Leafs dressing room this month poorly disguised as a fourth-line checker.
Devoted to the penalty kill, Brown led all Leafs forwards in ice time in their opening game in Winnipeg. He played well in Saturday’s home opener as well, but when the buzzer sounded, he was the only Leaf to have appeared in both games and still not have a point.
Monday, against Chicago of all opponents, the Groucho glasses flew off. We saw what Brown is capable of.
Down 2-0 to the modern dynasty after one period, Brown sifted a brilliant cross-ice pass to Zaitsev to help Toronto get on the board, then opened the Leafs’ third-period scoring when Zaitsev returned the favour.
Brown sniped the puck low past dialed-in Chicago backup Anton Forsberg in the high slot, for the ninth multi-point game of his young career.
“That was a big goal for us right there,” Babcock said. “That got our energy back.”
“That makes you hard to defend as a team, when you have guys chipping in from all over the lineup,” observed James van Riemsdyk.
The 23-year-old finished with two points, a plus-2 rating, a 62 per cent Corsi rating, two blocked shots, and a hit in 17:49 worth of work. He even won the only faceoff he took, as an epidemic of centremen got tossed out of the dot. He killed more than five minutes of penalties and was rewarded with a temporary line upgrade.
“You want to go out the door as much as possible,” said Brown, the flaming knife of Monday’s line juggle. “[Babcock] kept putting me out there, and I was obviously happy with it. And it was nice to be able to pot one.
“He has a good sense on the bench. I feel whenever I’m having a good game, I’m playing a little more. He has a sense for that — it’s a skill.”
Moore describes Brown as “a very intelligent player” who communicates well. Perhaps having too many strengths — smart positioning, fierce checking, discipline — has, in an odd way, pushed Brown down the lineup for now.
Maybe Brown’s love for the logo and comfort with his pals prevented him from going full Andreas Athanasiou in contract negotiations.
He fits on the fourth line not because he can’t fit on the first line but because he’ll work his 12 or 28 off until he fits anywhere.
“I didn’t think about it until now,” Brown smiled minutes after the horn sounded. “I was thinking about our task.”
The mission of a fourth-line wing is to limit the dangerous players’ chances, “hopefully to none,” Brown explained. U-turn the puck the other way.
With the game on the line, Brown helped accomplish that against three of the world’s best.
“Chicago’s been so good for so long, that was a big game for us,” said Brown, after the Leafs outshot their bejewelled visitors 43-21.
“Sustained success—that’s what [the Blackhawks] have had. That’s the goal. It’s no secret. We want to be good, not just for one year. We want to be good consistently.
“We’re building something special here. We have a really tight group. It turns individuals into friendships.”