TORONTO – It wasn’t until Connor Brown walked into the MasterCard Centre for Monday’s morning practice and saw a blue sweater in his stall — the same hue worn by Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk — that he realized he’d been re-promoted to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top-nine group, fulfilling a prophecy.
When Brown, a 20-goal scorer as a rookie last year, began 2017-18 skating on the fourth line, coach Mike Babcock called it: “I don’t think Brownie’s thinking he staying there.”
It took five games, four of them good ones, for the Leafs’ right-wing blender to come out and Brown to swap places with Mitch Marner in arguably the scariest top nine in hockey.
“I’m going to bring what I bring. It’s a matter of taking care of the puck and being smart on both sides of it. I haven’t looked too deep into it as to what it [means]. I just know I’m on a different line,” Brown said.
“They’re easy guys to play with. On this team, there’s not too many guys who are tough to play with, if any. It’ll be a quick adjustment. Shouldn’t be a problem at all.”
A portion of fans will look at Monday’s juggle as a well-deserved upgrade for Brown, who’s injected life into the Matt Martin–Dominic Moore/Eric Fehr trio, excelled on special teams, and posting a 57.3% Corsi rating in a primarily defensive role.
“He’s a top-nine forward in the league. [Brown] hasn’t been playing there, but he found a way through penalty kill and power play to play all over and be an important player for us. He’s just worked hard and finds a way to get on the scoresheet,” Babcock said.
“If Matty hadn’t won the game [in Montreal], he and Naz were second out in overtime [Saturday] night. He’s a good player, so we just play him.”
Another group of fans will see this as demotion for Marner, whose minus-6 rating is the worst on a team with a plus-7 goal differential. Veterans Bozak (minus-4) and van Riemsdyk (minus-5) are also getting the play taken to them.
JVR said his line must buckle up defensively as they prepare to face a Washington Capitals team that owns all three top scorers in the NHL: Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom.
The way Marner and Brown have started, the latter brings an element of safety to that group.
“Let’s not read too much into this. Their line wasn’t going. So, tie goes to the veteran. How’s that? [Marner] just happens to be the kid on the line, that’s it,” Babcock said.
“You have to have all your units going. We’re trying to do that. It was a big win for us in Montreal. In saying that, we didn’t think we generated a lot. We thought we could be way better as a team, so we have to find a way to be better.
“We try to be solution-based every day here. When we win, everything’s not always great. When we lose, everything’s not always bad.”
Marner says he doesn’t really think the Leafs have a fourth line, that skill seeps from top to bottom. But judging by his demeanour and Brown’s, the switch could serve as a wake-up call.
Not unlike how William Nylander was shoved further down the lineup in 2016-17, only to excel as a scorer once he earned his reps on Auston Matthews’ top unit.
“Defensively right now, I’m not too happy with how that’s going,” said Marner.
Yes, the 20-year-old has four points through five games and a nice 57.5% Corsi rate, but he’s also bobbled some pucks for goals the other way.
Marner saw a white jersey hanging in his stall Monday.
“It’s not the way I wanted it to go. It’s still early in the season, so you have to build back and make sure you’re working hard every day.”
Marner admitted that opposing defences have pegged him as a pass-first playmaker, so he’s bumped his shots-per-game slightly to 2.8 from 2.3 last season through five games. He’s only converted on seven per cent of his shot attempts, however, down from 10 per cent as a rookie.
“I’m trying to shoot more. People are thinking of me as just a passer. That’s something you want to turn off people’s minds. You [want] to be a dual threat,” Marner said. “I’m looking to get more shot opportunities.”
Don’t be surprised if Marner’s stint on the fourth line is as impermanent as Brown’s was. He’s an elite playmaker who will crave more minutes.
It’s also worth noting that because the Capitals get last change Tuesday, Babcock will have difficulty deploying Nazem Kadri’s shutdown line against Ovechkin. Moving the risk-adverse Brown to Bozak’s unit gives the coach options.
“Every team you play against exposes different things in your team that you need to work on,” said Babcock.
The bench boss was probably pleased to hear Marner take onus for his defensive lapses.
“When things go bad for you, it’s no one’s fault but your own. If you own everything you do, you’re in control of it,” Babcock said. “As soon as you play the blame game, or it’s something else, now you’re not in control of it anymore.”