‘All my jump back’: How Oilers’ Connor Brown found his stride at perfect time

Edmonton forward Connor Brown talks about how he feels the Oilers are a better team with their backs against the wall after they pulled of a crucial win in Game 4 against the Florida Panthers.

Fort Lauderdale, Fla. — Patrick Marleau stole his number but gave him a mentor.

Connor Brown only spent just two seasons with the man who has played more NHL games than anybody, yet their friendship has endured long since both men were traded out of Toronto.

During the two most difficult campaigns of Brown’s eight-year career, Marleau was there: In 2018-19, when the blue-collar winger tumbled to the fourth line and fell out of favour with the Maple Leafs, getting traded to provincial rival Ottawa the ensuing summer; and this past winter in Edmonton, where Brown didn’t score a goal until mid-March, his mind and body hampered by a reconstructed ACL.

“Patty was a great impact on my career,” Brown says now, elevating his game in the Stanley Cup Final.

“The one thing he taught me was: ‘Talk to yourself like you’d talk to a teammate.’ I could be hard on myself. This year, too, I had that tendency. He reached out to me at some points this year, to make sure I was doing OK. Patty’s a Hall of Fame player and an even better guy.”

When Marleau arrived in Toronto in 2017, he was a well-compensated star, hired in free agency for his leadership qualities.

Brown was more than happy to surrender his sweater number, 12, to the veteran in exchange for a designer bag and No. 28 — which now flaps in the breeze as Brown rushes pucks up the right wing for the Oilers.

“It’s an honour for a guy like that to take your number,” says Brown, who would’ve given it up without a bag. (He secured the bag later.)

This week, Brown has a shot at accomplishing something Marleau never did. And the way the 30-year-old has conducted himself on and off the ice, if Edmonton cannot complete a championship comeback down 3-1 to Florida, it won’t be for lack of effort.

Alongside linemate and penalty-kill partner, Brown was integral in building Saturday’s early 2-0 lead that allowed the Oilers to find their game and drag a frenzied home crowd along for the party.

“Yeah, those two might have been our best players. They’ve been playing really well for a long period of time,” coach Kris Knoblauch says.

“Brownie, it was difficult for him this season. He didn’t play last year; he had a major surgery. And he was just building his game. It was difficult. But throughout the season, he just kept getting better and better and better. And now, throughout the playoffs, he’s what we anticipated, what we wanted him for.”

This is what they wanted each other for.

Despite his lengthy rehab, Brown had options last summer in free agency. The cap-tight Oilers got creative, stuffing $3.225 million of Brown’s $4 million salary into performance bonuses that will tax their spreadsheet in 2024-25. And the player targeted a group of familiar faces he sensed could lift a Stanley Cup.

“I wanted to set myself up for a chance to win,” Brown says. “I knew this is where I wanted to be.”

You’ve heard how Connor McDavid, Brown’s old Erie Otters mate, aided in the signing (“He cultivates a great culture, great atmosphere,” Brown says), but his fellow ex-Leaf Zach Hyman played a key role too.

“I feel like I learned a lot from my time in Toronto,” says Brown. “All the time, we talk about it. Me and Zach learned a ton in Toronto playing under that spotlight.”

That’s where Brown cut his teeth as a hound on the penalty kill, under Mike Babcock and D.J. Smith. Those skills have never been so critical to his role as they are in this Oilers run.

When Knoblauch took the helm mid-season, he and assistant coach Mark Stuart formed new penalty-kill duos, infused more PK pride, and created some internal competition between units. Brown and Mattias Janmark’s defensive chemistry took off.

Sure, Edmonton’s all-world power play hogs headlines, but the winger reminds how integral the kill was to the Oilers’ 16-game win streak.

Even more remarkable is what the 4-on-5 group has done lately.

Not only have Brown & Co. killed 41 of their opponents’ past 42 power plays, but they’re a plus-1 with the man-disadvantage over that span, scoring twice short-handed — including the Brown-to-Janmark beauty that cracked open the floodgates in Game 4.

“I know when Janner’s gonna jump, and I can reload for him,” Brown says. “I think we’re a good defensive team, too.”

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Brown, slumping and scratched not so long ago, now speaks with more assuredness and maturity than ever.

When friend Darnell Nurse was taking some heat in the Dallas series, Brown was one of the most outspoken, saying that “everyone and their dog” was coming after the defenceman. When Sergei Bobrovsky was gassed up as the series’ best goalie, Brown sung Stuart Skinner’s praises. And as the Oilers fell into a 3-0 crevasse, Brown has been steadfast in his belief that they will climb out.

That is because, individually, Brown has already bounced back from “absolutely” the toughest season of his life, during which he freely thanks wise veterans like Marleau and Sam Gagner for their support.

His points per game as an Oiler have essentially doubled when it matters most — from 0.16 in the regular season to 0.31 in the playoffs.

“To be a big signing in a Canadian market and start with a slump and have physical challenges to get past, and those mental barriers, it was a lot of adversity. But I’m thankful for it, because it set me up well to handle the adversity of the playoffs,” Brown explains.

“I feel great. I have all my jump back. I’m skatin’ as good as I ever have. I’m stronger for the adversity, having gone through that. The reality was, I didn’t feel great at the beginning of the season from a physical standpoint. I didn’t have nearly the jump I do now.”

And, boy, it shows.

Brown is asked about the origin of his Stanley Cup dream, and he instantly brings up his father, Danny, who coached so many of his boyhood squads.

The Browns won a bunch of GTHL titles, Connor says, because his dad drove home the value of teamwork.

“You want to play for championships. You want to play to win,” says Brown. He’s but a three-game win streak from living the impossible.

“You want to play for something greater than yourself, your own points, your assists, your goals. And that’s shared throughout that locker room.”

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