The prevailing paradox of this annual late-summer hockey tournament is that there is such a thing as a veteran "rookie."
Brown, the son of former NHL defenceman Jeff Brown, has the pedigree to become a front-line NHL centre. Scouts know he has the size. At six-foot-six, 230 pounds, Brown has a chance to be a major presence down the middle that Ottawa hasn’t known since the days of Jason Spezza and Alexei Yashin.
Can he be as productive as those former Senators centremen?
He’s working on it and trying to show that a 74-point OHL season, in 59 games with the 2015-16 Windsor Spitfires, was no fluke.
As if on cue, Brown stepped on the ice at the CAA Arena in Belleville Friday night and was one of Ottawa’s dominant players in an 8-1 rout of the Winnipeg Jets’ rookies. Brown scored twice and assisted on another while putting on a full display of his talents.
On his first goal, he went to the net and deftly buried a rebound.
On his second, he showed a nice pair of mitts with a deke and a backhand tuck.
Just as important, Brown had obvious chemistry with right winger Drake Batherson, his familiar Belleville Senators linemate, and was the centre of a dominant line, which also featured the left side speed of winger Alex Formenton.
The sheer dominance of Ottawa’s top forwards, along with defenceman Erik Brannstrom, was an illustration of the Senators’ prospect depth, as they surge forward with their rebuild.
In Game 2 Saturday, a 4-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens rookies, the Brown line yielded to the Vitaly Abramov-Jon Gruden-Max Veronneau trio. Abramov, 21, who came to the Senators from Columbus in the trade for Matt Duchene, scored a hat trick for the young Sens.
Brown did create chances and had another strong outing.
Considering his high draft position, Brown has not exactly been an overnight sensation. There have been injuries, especially wrist and shoulder issues, but in 2018-19, Brown finally stayed healthy enough to play 56 games for Belleville, producing 14 goals and 28 assists, for 42 points last season.
Experience brings intangibles to a player. There is a different air about Brown, in his fourth go-around at camp. As he spoke to reporters prior to the rookie tournament, it was with a calm confidence that he knows what needs to be done.
"I want to be in the NHL," Brown said. "And for me to be in the NHL, I have to be the best player here (at this tourney).
"I’m confident I’m going to be and am excited to show them."
It doesn’t hurt Brown’s cause that former Senators head coach, Guy Boucher, has been replaced by D.J. Smith. Boucher, a stickler for defensive play, didn’t have confidence in Brown. Not that Smith will expect any less – he has already spoken repeatedly about his centres as a third defenceman – but he knows Brown a bit, and likes what he sees.
A Windsor native, Smith saw Brown playing for the Spitfires from 2014-17. Smith was coaching the OHL’s Oshawa Generals when Brown broke into the league.
"He’s seen me play, he knows my game," Brown says. "I’ve been talking to people and I hear he’s a great coach. His style of hockey I think fits my game, so I am definitely excited for him to come in here and change things up."
A sign of Brown’s growing maturity – he doesn’t look past his own reflection in the mirror when he talks about the coaching change. He had his chances with Boucher and doesn’t blame him for the fact he has needed time to take the next step.
"I definitely think it’s a fresh start, but I had all the motivation in the world before these (new) coaches," Brown says. "I don’t want to be an AHL player my whole life. So, one year in the ‘A’ is enough for me. That’s enough motivation."
It’s said repeatedly that Ottawa’s young players have opportunity this fall. That’s true. But only to a point. While a chosen few will make the grade, the majority will be back in Belleville, trying to prove themselves.
Brown, reinvigorated after a strong summer of training in St. Louis, a city "on fire" with Stanley Cup celebrations, he says, plans to be one of the chosen few.
"I can’t be just trying to fit in," Brown says. "I need to be pushing the pace. I need to be leading. I need to make plays, do everything. If you’re just fitting in you’re probably not ready. But if you’re one of the best players, making plays and pushing the pace, creating chances – that’s what I need to do."
Norris finally gets his game on
Josh Norris, an important prospect acquisition from last season, played his first game in about eight months, chipping in with an assist in Friday’s rout of the Jets. Norris, part of the deal that sent Erik Karlsson to San Jose, had shoulder surgery in January, but after a long summer of training and rehabilitation, pronounced himself 100 per cent healthy for the rookie tournament. Norris, 20, was a first-round pick of the Sharks (19th overall, 2017).
In Friday’s game, he was noticeable in several areas, including providing a net presence on a power-play goal by Erik Brannstrom.
Norris, a Michigan Wolverines product who is pals with Senators winger Brady Tkachuk, was off skates for four months after the surgery. Belleville head coach Troy Mann, who is running the bench at the rookie tournament, kept Norris on the sidelines Saturday as a precaution but he is expected to play in Monday’s game against the Jets.
Count Norris, who can play centre or wing, among the many prospects who hope to be part of a bright future in Ottawa.
"It’s pretty cool to see how much talent there is on the ice," Norris said. "Everyone’s a great guy, everyone works really hard, so I think there is a good mix of everything."