At the time of writing this article, the Ottawa Senators have made just one addition to their roster by way of free agent signings. But there’s another signing that members of the organization and their fans should take note of. The Edmonton Oilers and general manager Ken Holland were able to draw Zach Hyman out of Toronto with a seven-year contract at a cap hit of $5.5 million as officially reported by TSN’s Darren Dreger. Connor Brown still has two seasons left at a cap hit of $3.6 million, but the comparable elements between the two players are undeniable.
A player’s birthplace and first NHL team (Hyman was Florida Panthers draft selection but made his debut with the Toronto Maple Leafs) shouldn’t affect their contracts with other teams, but it starts the list of comparable features. Hyman and Brown are both from the Toronto area and played minor hockey there as well. Hyman was a fifth-round pick in 2010 (123rd overall), and Brown was a sixth-round choice in 2012 (156th overall). Though taking different paths, both players ended up on the 2015-16 Toronto Marlies in the American Hockey League (AHL) and made their NHL debuts with the Maple Leafs that season, putting up six points each in limited appearances. They played their first full NHL seasons in 2016-17, and both played all 82 games, with Brown notching 36 points and Hyman tallying 28.
Brown played up and down the Maple Leafs’ lineup under coach Mike Babcock, and Hyman was elevated to a top-line role. The two proved their value on a team with talented all-stars by being the players willing to go into the corners and dig out pucks to set up plays. They played on the penalty kill and helped shut down the top lines of opposing teams. The Senators were ultimately able to pick up Brown because the Maple Leafs felt the cap crunch and had Hyman under what was a more valuable contract for a couple of extra seasons.
Hyman had also put up a couple of 40-point seasons, while Brown was closer to 30 points, but Senators fans know that he’s back on a 40-plus point pace per season over the past two seasons. Now the Maple Leafs are attempting to fill the hole left by both players, and the Oilers and Senators are enjoying the benefits of the hard-nosed and point-producing game of these players.
Precedent for Brown
Hyman is nearly two years older than Brown despite making his debut in the same year. Brown will be 29 years old when his current contract ends at the completion of the 2022-23 season, which just happens to be the same age as Hyman as he entered free agency. Brown has proven himself worthy of a Hyman comparable and arguably offers a bit more offensively. Brown generally plays in the top six and can drive a line on the wing. He can play with the young stars or can slide down to eat minutes in a shutdown role on the third line when needed.
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He’s been in the top two in shorthanded time on ice and the top two in points for the Senators in the past two seasons (one off Brady Tkachuk’s point totals both seasons). This is all while continuing to put the puck in the net, including leading the Senators in goals in 2020-21 and setting a franchise-record eight-game goal-scoring streak.
The odd twist in all of this is that with the flat cap, we’re seeing superstars continue to get good money and players you might not see at the All-Star Game, as well as veterans taking cuts to have a roster spot and help keep a team under the cap. Hyman and Brown seem to be in a category of their own. Teams recognize that they don’t put up 30 goals a season, but they play 200-foot games, play along the boards, in front of the net, and get their names on the score sheet in the offensive columns. As elevating set up players that can score if needed, they’re carving out a niche that is in high demand and has a short supply. Financially speaking, they’re finding a way to occupy a shrinking middle-tier in the NHL.
Budget for Brown
With large or at least long deals expected to be handed out to Brady Tkachuk and other young stars if they can continue to develop and play to their potential, the risk for Senators general manager Pierre Dorion is that he won’t have enough room to pay Brown in the area of $5.5 million per season. There will be some big contracts with large cap hits still on the books when the time comes to review Brown’s value. Those include Matt Murray at $6.25 million, Thomas Chabot at $8 million, whatever Tkachuk and Drake Batherson sign for, and potentially Nikita Zaitsev and Colin white at or near $4.5 million each. A lot can change in two years.
Not all of these contracts will still be on the books, and certainly some of them should still be (I’ll let you figure that out for now). But Dorion would be wise to budget for Brown now that he’s been given a two-year notice of Brown’s potential value against the cap.
Sports and music writer, covering the Ottawa Senators for The Hockey Writers. Lecturer at King’s University College. Loves a good day at the outdoor rink.