Sometimes life’s just not fair.
This statement certainly extends to the hockey world. While the NHL is the sport’s highest, most prestigious level, it’s not always the case that the best players in the world get to play there.
Defenseman T.J. Brennan, currently with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, is a perfect example of this.
Brennan is, by all accounts, a pretty darn good hockey player. Despite being a defenseman, the 26 year-old is tied for the AHL lead in scoring with 38 points in 40 games. Even more impressively, 15 of those points have been goals, which ties him for 10th in the league in that category.
His play has been so strong thus far that NHL.com correspondent Patrick Williams recently listed Brennan as the mid-season frontrunner for the Les Cunningham Award as AHL MVP.
“The Toronto Marlies sit atop the AHL standings with 64 points in 41 games, seven points ahead of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins,” he wrote. “Toronto leads the AHL in goals per game (3.85) and are fifth in goals-against per game (2.44). Defenseman TJ Brennan, a puck-mover who can anchor the power play, has played a major role. Brennan has stood out on Toronto’s blue line, which also features captain Andrew Campbell and prospect Stuart Percy.”
This isn’t new ground for Brennan, either. Back in the 2013-14 AHL season the native of Willingboro, New Jersey put up an eye-popping 72 points (25 goals and 47 assists) in 76 games, which finished as a tie for third in league scoring. For his efforts he was awarded the Eddie Shore Award as the league’s top defenseman.
While there are still holes in the blueliner’s game, such as his ability to consistently defend his own zone, Brennan nevertheless fits nicely into the category of offensive defenseman, a role that is employed by many NHL teams. Using his sustained and prolific AHL success as evidence, it would stand to reason that he is good enough to play in the NHL. Certainly not as a top pairing defenseman, and probably not as a second pair guy either, but at the very least as a third pair defender or a healthy scratch that routinely draws into games.
And yet, cracking an NHL roster with regularity has been something that has constantly eluded him.
The former 2nd round pick (31st overall) from the 2007 NHL Entry Draft has been a part of the Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers, Chicago Blackhawks, New York Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs organizations so far in his hockey career, but has only appeared in a combined 46 NHL games between the five teams.
His most recent appearance in The Show came in a six-game stint last season with the Leafs. He’s spent the entirety of this season in the AHL.
The results of those 46 games has been mixed (some point production, decent possession numbers, sheltered usage, some penalty trouble), but they’re too small of a sample size to say much definitely, especially considering their scattered nature. Sure, those games have been chances to show what he can do in the NHL, but not particularly good ones.
It’s understandable to an extent to see where the Leafs, his current organization, are coming from by keeping him in the AHL. They have a group of six NHL-caliber defensemen – Dion Phaneuf, Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Roman Polak, Matt Hunwick and Martin Marincin – that have stayed fairly healthy and have appeared in the majority of the team’s games. Beyond them, Toronto has elected to use youngsters Frankie Corrado and Scott Harrington as their infrequent replacements instead of Brennan, a decision that makes sense considering the Leafs are in a state of rebuilding and want to give some ice time to younger players that they feel could be regulars on their roster in the future.
Still, the Leafs are a team that, spurred on especially by new head coach Mike Babcock, want to win as many games as they can this season, and it’s hard to not envision Brennan helping them do exactly that. The Leafs are 26th in the NHL on the powerplay, at a success rate of a paltry 16.9%. Brennan is a powerplay specialist, so there seems to be a natural fit there if the roster space opens up.
Will Brennan finally get an extended shot in the NHL? Despite it not happening thus far, it’s still within the realm of possibility. Toronto is expected to be a major seller at this year’s trade deadline, so if one or more of their current defensemen end up on their way out of town the team could conceivably call up Brennan as a ready replacement.
Most crucially, however, is that he is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. If the Leafs don’t want to keep him as a regular on their NHL roster then there are 29 other teams out there that might.
Given the potential to contribute that he’s shown in the AHL, it would be a shame if none of those teams took that chance.