Sunday, January 19, 2014

Is Connor Brown a Legitimate Prospect?

connor brown leafs otters
Very rarely does a sixth-round pick turn himself into a legitimate prospect. But as Leafs prospect Connor Brown continues his assault on the OHL, more and more fans and scouts are beginning to wonder whether Brown's scoring prowess will one day translate to the NHL.

Brown is leading the OHL in scoring with 31 goals and 92 points through 45 games and is on pace for nearly 140 points. No OHL player has surpassed 130 points in a season since Patrick Kane scored 145 in 2006-07.

Since the start of the year Brown has shown an incredible leap forward in his development. Prior to this season he was given a prospect talent score of 6.5 out of 10 by Hockey's Future, meaning his ceiling was somewhere between a second and third line forward, although he was "unlikely to reach that potential".

"A highly skilled forward, Connor Brown has started to develop his game away from the puck. Adding a grit component to his game will help Brown become a more dangerous forward in deep. He has a knack for scoring goals, but also has strong vision that allows him to set-up up teammates for offensive chances. Skating remains an area of focus over the next season. Brown will need to become a quicker forward to find success at the professional level. Defensively he is also a work in progress."

Furthermore, Brown didn't even crack the Leafs' top 10 prospects list published by Hockey Prospectus in September.

Things changed after Brown worked hard to improve his skating by spending time working with Barb Underhill in the summer. The hard work is paying off big time.

"I skated with her a lot early in the summer and my improvement has a lot to do with her," Brown told "The Leafs staff is so knowledgeable and they push you hard. I thought that's what I needed this summer and I was pretty fortunate to get that opportunity."

Since turning into a two-point-per-game forward this season, Corey Pronman, the author of the top 10 prospect series for Hockey Prospectus, has acknowledged that Brown "has developed a ton since his draft year" and that he is now considered a "good prospect".

At the same time in late November, however, Pronman ranked Brown behind Josh Leivo, Carter Verhaeghe, and Tyler Biggs in an informal ranking on Twitter, explaining that although he's played well, Pronman considered him a "tweener", which is a player too good for the AHL but not good enough for the NHL (most often because an inability to play well enough defensively in a bottom-6 role). "[Brown is a] skilled guy, works hard, but skating worries me and not that good defensively."

Pronman's criticism is important, because not every player who lights up the OHL scoreboard goes on to a productive NHL career. The top of the OHL scoring leaderboard is littered with guys who never saw any meaningful minutes in the NHL, and plenty who couldn't even crack an NHL roster. Corey Locke scored 151 points for the Ottawa 67s in 2002-03, the most of any OHL player in almost 20 years, and only played nine games in the NHL. Peter Sarno twice led the OHL in points and his cup of coffee lasted only seven games.  Norm Milley, Mike Renzi, Mike Jefferson, Maxim Spiridonov, and Kevin Colley were all top-10 OHL scorers as well and none amounted to anything at the NHL level. Just because a player can score in junior doesn't mean he will in the NHL.

The top of the leaderboard also isn't a true reflection of the very best talent the junior leagues have to offer because many of the most talented players miss a few weeks of action to participate in the World Junior Hockey Championship. In addition, many of the very best players who would most likely lead the league are already in the NHL.

Another reason to be skeptical about Brown's NHL prospects is that he plays with 17-year-old phenom Connor McDavid. Sidney Crosby once turned both Dany Roussin and Marc-Antoine Pouliot into top scorers and both turned back into pumpkins once Crosby made his way to the NHL.

So how much of Brown's production is a creation of his own talent, and how much is a product of McDavid? Nearly half of Brown's goals are assisted McDavid, whereas only 27% of McDavid's goals are assisted by Brown. However, this is sort of misleading as Brown has scored twice as many goals as McDavid, so there has been more opportunity for McDavid to benefit points-wise from Brown. Furthermore, only 6.5% of Brown's assists are from McDavid goals, so he's been productive apart from the future No. 1 pick. Finally, 72% of Brown's assists are primary assists, meaning his play has more directly contributed to goals; he hasn't lived off other people's work as much with secondary assists.

Brown is also 20 years old and in his second season after being drafted. Among the top-10 OHL scorers over the last 20 years, the group of players who went on to have successful NHL careers were top scorers in their 19-year-old season, on average, and in their first post-draft season. The group of top scorers who did not go on to have NHL careers were in their 20-year-old season, on average, and in their second post-draft season. Both Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry were among the league leaders as 20 year olds, so it's not like being a league leader as an older player means you won't make the NHL, but it isn't as predictive as leading the league as a teenager.

Although Brown has turned himself into a good prospect that's getting noticed by Leafs management, the odds are still against him turning into a viable NHL player. The points are nice, but Brown still has a lot of work to do. Spending next season with Steve Spott on the Toronto Marlies will go a long way to determining whether Brown is anything more than a junior scoring sensation.

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