There’s a reason that Ottawa Senators coach D.J. Smith and general manager Pierre Dorion wanted Connor Brown in a deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs that also brought over Nikita Zaitsev and the signing rights to Michael Carcone in exchange for Cody Ceci, Ben Harpur, Aaron Luchuk, and a 2020 third-round pick.
As an assistant coach for the Maple Leafs, Smith knew that Brown was a unique player that could dig the puck out of battles in the corners, play responsibly in the defensive zone, and had more of an offensive potential to tap. Cap constraints and salary issues forced the hand of the Maple Leafs and gave Smith a player he could rely on in nearly any situation on the ice as they both joined the rebuilding Senators. Indeed, as the young core and leaders in Thomas Chabot, Brady Tkachuk, and Josh Norris continue to develop and mature, Brown has been a valuable asset and my pick as the 2020-21 MVP for the Senators.
By the Numbers
You don’t need to do a deep dive into the world of hockey analytics to find evidence for Brown’s MVP status. He had a breakout offensive season in 2019-20 with 16 goals and 27 assists for 43 points. After a slow start to 2020-21, he took another step forward offensively and put up 21 goals and 14 assists for 35 points which put him on pace to surpass the 43 points of the previous season. His 21 goals led the Senators this season and included a franchise-record eight-game goal streak from the end of March through to the middle of April. This stretch also included two of his five team-leading shorthanded goals.
Brown finished one point behind Tkachuk for the team lead in points for the second season in a row. What makes this an exceptional feat is that only four of Brown’s 35 points were on the power play, and he only averaged 1:22 of power-play time on ice per games played (PP TOI/GP). Alternatively, he led the team in shorthanded time on ice (SH TOI) with 163:40 over the season and shorthanded time on ice per games played (SH TOI/GP) at 2:55 (among players who played the entire season with the Senators). He also starts 61.6 percent of his even-strength shifts in the defensive zone. Further, he regularly plays on the third line for Smith but can jump up to the second when needed. It’s difficult to find another team where their leading scorer plays most of his minutes on the third line and receives little power-play time.
What this represents is quite clear. Brown is a defense-first player tagged with making sure the Senators take care of their own zone at even strength and on the penalty kill. But somehow, he is making the most of his ice-time and putting up points while helping shut down the top offensive lines of opponents. He might not score highlight-reel goals, and he might not play in a position under the spotlight (top line or pair, centre, powerplay anchor), but he gets the job done consistently. He finished second on the team in shooting percentage (among players who played at least 10 games for the Senators) with 17.1 percent and tied for second on the team in points per game played (P/GP) with 0.63. This is all rounded out with a plus-1 rating through a tough season (scoff if you must) and only 12 penalty minutes, which is expectational for someone who spends so much time defending.
I have to imagine that there’s been a moment or two in the minds of Senators fans when they wondered if Brown could be considered for team captain. I will admit to it. Tkachuk has undoubtedly displayed that he is the emotional and offensive heart and soul of this team for the past two seasons and will be the captain at some point in franchise history, assuming he is signed long-term. He is a great fit and already a fan favourite for the role.
I have no issue with this move, and I am not arguing that Brown should be captain, but it’s hard to ignore and might be harder to ignore his value to the Senators and his $3.6 million cap hit for the next two seasons if he continues to play at the level set by the past two seasons or he happens to exceed expectations. Of course, the captain isn’t just the player signed to the most team-friendly deal, but understanding everything that Brown does, it’s hard not to think of him as a key member of the leadership group, even if it is just by example.
Glue of the Lineup
As Tim Stützle, Josh Norris, Drake Batherson, and Tkachuk continue to develop into the offensive forces they can be, Brown’s share of the offensive pie might get smaller, but as outlined above, his point totals primarily come at even strength. If he continues to get consistent minutes, he’ll generate goals and find a way to get points. He’s not a power-play specialist or simply depth scoring. He has a direct impact on the wins and losses through his play in all three zones, which, as imperfect as the stat might be, is reflected in his team’s leading point shares this season, according to hockey-reference.com. A 4.3 share overall combined the best offensive point shares with 3.1, and the best defensive point shares for a forward at 1.2.
Brown will turn 30-years-old halfway through the first season of whatever his next contract is. Whether the Senators see value in re-signing the 200-foot player at that point in his career will be influenced by the next two seasons as well. It’s hard to imagine Smith coaching a team without Brown on it, but cap constraints could once again dictate where a valuable player like him ends up. We’ve got time before Dorion has to worry about that, so let’s give the MVP for the 2020-21 Senators his due at the moment and celebrate the success of the quiet but effective player.
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.