While Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner have certainly stolen the show this season, Leaf fans are starting to take notice of a lesser known rookie performing well, Connor Brown. The early returns on Brown have been strong considering where he was drafted, but there is some difficulty in determining where the ceiling lies for the young Etobicoke native. Inconsistent play at the beginning of the year and an ever changing spot in the lineup has made it challenging to fully assess Brown as a player. However, a recent stretch of strong play and a more established role in the offence could help cement Brown as a legitimate core piece moving forward, forcing Leaf fans to stop viewing him as just another complimentary player. After years of continually proving fans and scouts wrong about his potential, it is time to set the record straight; Connor Brown is the real deal, and is here to stay in the NHL.

    Connor Brown has faced an uphill battle to get where he is today, in spite of performing at a high level seemingly everywhere that he’s played. In 2009-2010, Brown was a key member of the dominant Minor Midget-AAA Toronto Marlboros, posting 69 points in 80 games on a team that featured seven players taken in the 2012 NHL Draft. While Brown performed well at the Minor Midget level, he was a late selection in the 2010 OHL Draft, with the Erie Otters selecting him in the 13th round at 251st overall. Erie was willing to take a late flyer on him, but scouts viewed Brown as a poor skater and unreliable in his own zone.

    From Hockey’s Future:

    “Brown’s skating remains an area of focus and he will need to continue to become a quicker forward to find success at the professional level. Defensively his game is a work in progress.”

    18-year old Connor Brown (TERRY WILSON / OHL IMAGES)

    After a successful year playing Junior A for the St. Michael’s Buzzers, Brown took his talents to Erie, at the time the worst team in the OHL. Brown finished his first OHL season as the leading scorer on the team, posting 25 goals and 28 assists in 68 games. This performance led him to being ranked 110th overall amongst North American prospects by NHL Central Scouting. After several teams passed over Brown from his projected draft position, he was eventually selected by Toronto in the sixth round of the 2012 NHL Draft, 156th overall.

    Brown was not done proving the naysayers wrong. He would continue his strong play in Erie, scoring 28 goals and 41 assists in 63 games as an 18-year old captain. Brown’s final year in junior would prove to be his most dominant, scoring 45 goals and leading the OHL with 83 assists in just 68 games. When many attributed his success to the rise of phenom Connor McDavid, Brown continued to perform when McDavid went down with a hand injury. Hitting his stride offensively certainly caught the attention of Leafs brass, as he signed a three-year entry-level contract in November of 2013.

    Dubas on Brown’s play without McDavid:

    “Connor is a very good player,” said Leafs assistant GM Kyle Dubas, who got his fill of Brown and the Otters last season when he was GM of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. “When we played them in the playoffs, it was very noticeable to me that on the penalty kill he was outstanding, and Connor McDavid wasn’t on the ice with him

    Brown was dominant at the AHL level (GRAIG ABEL/GRAIG ABEL PHOTOGRAPHY).

    In his first AHL year in 2014-2015, Brown lead the Marlies in scoring with 21 goals and a team-leading 30 assists in 76 games, bringing the team to a second place finish in the North Division. In spite of concerns regarding his size, skating ability and defensive play, Brown had developed himself into a bonafide NHL prospect. On March 17th of the 2015-2016 season, Brown made his NHL debut against the Florida Panthers, scoring six points (1G, 5A) over his seven games with the team. Brown had turned himself from a bottom of the barrel 13th round OHL draft pick to a potential core piece worth talking about.

    That pretty much leads us to where we are today, with Brown almost half way in to his first full NHL season. While Brown’s season has not been offensively dominant by any stretch of the imagination (7G, 9A), the kid is giving us more and more reason to believe that he should be part of the Leafs’ long term plans.

    Brown has spent time on both wings this season, and has had a variety of different linemates throughout the year. Most recently however, Babcock has decided to go with a line of Brown, Auston Matthews and Zach Hyman. Over the past five games, where the Brown-Matthews-Hyman line has been together, the Leafs are undefeated (5-0-0), and Brown has posted 7 points (3G, 4A), with some highlight reel material to boot.

    I think Brown has found his permanent home on a line with his fellow young guns. Matthews is a shoot first player, and likes to be the dominant puck handler both during the breakout and during play in the offensive zone. With Hyman’s knack for digging out pucks on the boards and getting to the dirty areas, Brown is free to utilize his high offensive IQ and puck moving capability to get the biscuit to Matthews. Brown is also able to generate offense on his own, with an accurate and powerful wrist shot. Babcock has also found use for his defensive capabilities, as Brown has been a stalwart on the penalty kill unit, one of the tops in the league.

    Babcock on Hyman and Brown on the PK:

    “I think if [Connor Brown] and Zach Hyman played on the power play they would have a lot more points, but we use them on the penalty kill. We think that’s important. They’re dominant penalty killers. They work hard every day. They’re part of the drive train of your team and will be for a long time.”

    Throughout his career, there have been concerns regarding Brown’s small frame, skating and capability in his own end. But Brown’s ability to generate offense, kill penalties at a high level and get the puck on the stick of Auston Matthews are starting to change the perception of Brown as just a complimentary player. Connor Brown is the real deal, and it’s about time he got the respect that he deserves.