Marlies’ Brown developing in own backyard

by Kinsey Janke || for

In another life, Connor Brown might have had a successful career in the financial world. Maybe on the front lines of Wall Street, or tucked away somewhere in a private firm. Math was kind of his thing in high school.

But hockey, like it does for most people, had other ideas. Taken in the sixth round (No. 156) of the 2012 NHL Draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Etobicoke, Ont., native got a chance to realize a dream every little kid playing hockey has: Throwing on your hometown sweater.

“My whole family are pretty big Leafs fans so getting drafted here was just an added bonus to a special feeling on draft day,” he said. “A couple buddies of mine that were there texted me first, and then I eventually saw my name on the ticker. We just watched it on TV.”

Now halfway through his first season with the Maple Leafs’ American Hockey League affiliate, the neighboring Toronto Marlies, the 21-year-old Brown still has an affinity for numbers. He leads the Marlies in goals (12), assists (21), points (33), and shots on goal (85), while his point total places him just four behind Hamilton’s Charles Hudon for the AHL rookie lead.

“I had questions at the start of the season whether he’d be a player that could come in and be an impact player,” said Marlies head coach Gord Dineen. “Being a younger guy and not real big in stature, I just thought it would be a real big adjustment. But he has erased all doubts in my mind as to his capabilities.”

Brown got on the map where many players do, skating in the Ontario Hockey League. Though his 250 points in 199 career regular-season games with Erie was nothing short of impressive – including a scoring title and the league’s most outstanding player award in 2013-14 – Brown’s formative years in Toronto’s youth hockey ranks with the 1994-born squad of the Toronto Marlboros hold a special meaning as well.

On that team, Brown played alongside fellow 2012 draft picks Scott Laughton (No. 20, Philadelphia), Scott Kosmachuk (No. 70, Winnipeg), Matia Marcantuoni (No. 92, Pittsburgh), Jake Paterson (No. 80, Detroit), and Adam Pelech (No. 65, New York Islanders). The seventh member of that core was Matt Finn, Toronto’s second-round pick (No. 35) in 2012 who Brown continues to have by his side with the Marlies.

“Me and Finner played together first when we were five years old all the way up to our OHL draft year,” Brown said. “We were obviously drafted to different teams in the O, but to both be drafted to Toronto in 2012, that was pretty special to go through something that cool with a good friend.”

One of the biggest adjustments for young players making the move to professional hockey is the necessity of playing a two-way game. Brown’s head coach in Erie, Kris Knoblauch, urged his players to play a responsible game, something that continues to be echoed throughout Dineen’s staff in Toronto.

“I’m a very competitive hockey player and I truly want to win night in and night out,” Brown said. “I think I try to do whatever I can to help us win and have a good understanding of how much defense helps you win.”

The focus on rounding out his defensive game while not allowing his offense to slip has worked, as Brown’s plus-10 rating is good for third overall on the Marlies roster. He’s recorded six multiple-point games on the year, providing some spark to a Toronto team that ranks 28th in the league in goals per game. His commitment to growing as a player and leaving everything on the ice hasn’t gone unnoticed by Marlies brass.

“He loves the game and is totally engaged every day as far as developing and getting better. He’s just a hungry, hungry player,” Dineen said. “Everything that he does is to benefit the team. He is a guy that wants the puck. He wants it offensively, and when he doesn’t have the puck, he is very hungry to get it back.”

The Toronto setup continues to be one of the more favorable developmental systems in the league. Not only do they need to learn how to be a pro on the ice, players also figure out how to carry themselves with fans and media, and how to navigate the ebbs and flows of the locker room. With the Leafs just a nine-minute drive away, the Marlies get a continuous firsthand glimpse into what awaits on the other side of the recall.

“You know exactly what’s going on with their team up there, so guys that are called up, they kind of know what they’re getting into,” Brown said. “It’s definitely cool. Part of the game is preparing for the media side of everything, and already being in Toronto definitely makes it that much easier to get ready for it.”

Forty-four games in, things keep moving smoothly for the winger. With his childhood home just 15 minutes away from Ricoh Coliseum, Brown forwent living on his own in favor of living at home, giving a nod to his parents as “pretty easy” to live with. But he hasn’t lost sight of the end goal.

“I’m working on extending my possession in the offensive zone, which I think I’ve gotten better and better at,” he said. “You just try to trend in the right direction and try to get better every day.”