'Mental toughness' helping Connor Brown avoid the dreaded sophomore slump
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Connor Brown, center, celebrates his goal during the third period of a NHL hockey game against the Washington Capitals, Oct. 17, 2017, in Washington. (Nick Wass/THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP)
David Alter, The Canadian Press
Published Friday, November 17, 2017 10:06AM EST
TORONTO -- When he arrived at the Maple Leafs' practice facility on Wednesday morning, Connor Brown saw he'd been bumped down the depth chart to the team's fourth line.
That sort of demotion could leave a player feeling a bit sick to his stomach. But in Brown's case, his coach has elected to take all of the blame.
"I said to him today, 'did you check out the lineup?' He said. 'Yeah.' So I said, 'you're getting screwed again,' and he just laughed," Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. "He knows he ain't going to be there for long. That's for warmup. You've got to put him somewhere."
Following a rookie season in which he recorded 20 goals while suiting up in all 82 regular season games, Brown is well on pace to shatter that number. He has seven goals through the first 20 games of the season despite starting the 2017-18 campaign on the team's fourth line, where even-strength minutes are scarce.
"You just can't overthink it with whatever line your on," Brown said. "I think for me, I understand that me switching lines isn't necessarily about how I'm playing every night. You just have to stick with what you bring."
The Leafs forward group remains relatively unchanged from last season. Toronto signed veteran forward Patrick Marleau to a three-year $18.75-million contract on July 2, creating an influx of talent of players up front.
As a result, Brown opened the season on the fourth line for the team's first five regular-season games before he was moved up in favour of fellow sophomore Mitch Marner, who struggled with the defensive element of his game.
But with Auston Matthews' impending return to the lineup after missing the last four games with an upper-body injury, and Marner's recent offensive improvement (one goal, six assists in his last six games), Brown is equipped with the proper mindset and versatility to handle a possible return to the bottom of the lineup
"The thing about it, is he's mentally tough enough that it doesn't even bother him," Babcock said.
Brown's rise to the NHL ranks is your typical underdog story. Deemed small at the bantam level at five-foot-six and 129 pounds, the Erie Otters selected Brown in the 13th round of the 2010 Ontario Hockey League draft.
"Everyone talks about how smart we were when we selected him," said former Otters owner and general manager Sherry Bassin via telephone on Wednesday. "We have to be the dumbest people in the world if we thought he was going to be this good."
Shortly after the draft, Brown had a growth spurt and added 3.5 inches and 31 pounds while scoring 25 goals and 28 assists in 68 games during his first season with Erie. He would later win the Canadian Hockey League scoring title in 2013-14.
Today, Bassin remains Brown's most prominent advocate, and both stay in touch on at least a bi-weekly basis.
"He taught more about life values, being a good person more than being a player, I think that stuck with a lot of guys like myself," Brown said of Bassin. "Whenever I need a pick-me-up, I know I'll get it from him."
Brown's path to the Leafs, his favourite team growing up, is large in part due to an established relationship between Bassin and Leafs director of pro scouting Dave Morrison. Bassin was the co-GM of Canada's 1982 world junior team where Morrison played on the wing. Before the 2012 NHL draft, Bassin met up with Morrison at a hockey game and Bassin made his pitch.
"I said Morry, take this guy," Bassin said. "I can't believe it that nobody is talking to him before the fifth round, they took him in the sixth round, and it's one of the best picks they ever made."
This summer, Brown signed a three-year extension worth $2.1 million per season. It's turning out to be one of the best deals in terms of value for any Leaf not currently on an entry-level contract.
His low maintenance and dedication to the game have made him a valuable asset.
"He checks, he scores, he competes every day," Babcock said. "That's what you want from guys. He's money in the bank, that's the way I look at it."