When T.J. Brennan re-signed for another year with the Leafs on Thursday, there was only one goal in mind: Make the big club on opening night – finally, once and for all. The rebuilding Leafs would be wise to grant him that opportunity.
Brennan, who was re-acquired by the team at the trade deadline, inked a one-year deal to return to the organization where he has had his biggest success. The 26-year-old defenceman has been an offensive force for the Marlies – he’s done nothing but score goals with ease in the minors – and was a strong possession player for the Leafs when he was called up, better than anyone else on the roster.
Leafs Let Brennan Walk
A year ago, Brennan was poised to get his shot, after signing a one-year, one-way deal worth $600,000 with the Islanders in free agency.
Despite having the same arrangement with the Leafs the year before, Brennan was coming off a career season as a pro. In 2013-14, he led all AHL defencemen with 25 goals and 72 points in 76 games for the Marlies – never once getting the call to the Air Canada Centre out of fear of being lost to waivers – taking home the Eddie Shore Award, the American League’s version of the Norris Trophy, as the most outstanding blue liner. During the team’s playoff run to the conference finals, he remained a dominant threat, recording 14 points in as many contests.
TJ Brennan signed for just $600,000 with the Islanders. Will definitely get shot with NHL team there, which is what he wanted.
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) July 1, 2014
But with the Islanders looking to shore up their defence with a more-established player, GM Garth Snow took advantage of the cap-strapped Blackhawks, sending Brennan to Chicago less than a week before the start of the season, in a deal that brought fellow defender Nick Leddy to Long Island. While Brennan never got a sniff in the Windy City due to the Blackhawks’ defensive depth, he remained an integral part of Chicago’s farm team in Rockford. With the IceHogs this season, Brennan racked up another 36 points in 54 games, including nine goals. Sure, it wasn’t quite the same point-per-game pace as the year prior, but the Leafs had to have realized they let a good player slip away.
Brennan Still an Impact in Toronto
When Brennan returned to town in a trade for forward Spencer Abbott, it was as if he never left: 23 points in 24 regular season and playoff games, leading the Marlies from 14th place to a postseason appearance they had no business qualifying for. He was a big-time performer when the team needed it the most, scoring three times in a tough, five-game opening round series against the Grand Rapids Griffins, including a clutch, rocket from the point in Game 2 that had the Marlies eyeing a sweep.
Though the Marlies would go on to lose the series in five games, Brennan’s performance certainly stands out. He can fire the puck like any top NHL blue liner, and has become less of a defensive liability.
A Bright Spot With the Leafs
During the stretch drive, Brennan played six games with the Leafs, registering just one assist. But it’s his early possession numbers that jump off the page.
With Brennan on the ice, the team had nine more shot attempts than it gave up, the highest differential of any player on the roster. While it is a small sample size, and Brennan didn’t play during the majority of the team’s losing season, that figure is double Nazem Kadri’s – whose shot attempt differential was minus-9 – the highest-ranking Leaf with at least 70 games played.
Brennan’s shot attempts percentage also ranks first, with Toronto taking 53.02 per cent of the game’s attempts with him on the ice, compared to 49.77 per cent when Kadri or Jake Gardiner hop over the boards. With not one regular member of the team above even in either category, it’s hard to dismiss that Brennan didn’t have at least a slight impact and enhanced the Leafs’ possession game in his short stint, when there’s that much of a gap.
If Dion Phaneuf is moved this summer, the competition on defence will be wide open, with Stuart Percy, Andrew McWilliam, and Petter Grannberg all vying to make the team. Brennan has done everything he’s been asked to for the Marlies, and probably is too good for the AHL at this point. A strong showing of a two-way game in camp, and it’s time to give him a Leafs sweater.
Alan is a journalism graduate of Ryerson University in Toronto, and writes about the Maple Leafs for THW. He has covered the game for the National Post, Yahoo! Sports Canada and The Hockey News.