As the NHL’s March 21 trade deadline approaches, non-playoff teams are going to be looked at as sellers. This is true of the Ottawa Senators, currently second-last in the Atlantic Division, just seven points ahead of the 32nd-place Montreal Canadiens.
Ottawa has a number of players that could be moved by GM Pierre Dorion, including goaltender Anton Forsberg and forward Nick Paul. And Dorion will likely get calls on other players, but one who he shouldn’t move is one of the most underappreciated NHLers around these days: forward Connor Brown.
Since the Toronto Maple Leafs drafted him 156th overall in 2012, Brown has consistently met and surpassed expectations. He’s not a physically-imposing presence, but Brown is always tough on the puck, with great instincts and no ego. Yes, his goal total is down this season – he’s got nine this year, as opposed to the career-high 21 he scored for the Sens last season – but Brown’s playmaking has improved, as he has 25 assists in 25 games, virtually ensuring he’ll set a new career mark (he generated a career-best 27 assists two seasons ago).
And for some reason, some Sens fans feel like they should move him to bring in other pieces.
Why would you want to deal away a 28-year-old player in his prime, especially one who is under team control for next season before he becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2023? For a team that doesn’t spend to the salary cap ceiling, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to ship Brown to a contending team.
If the salary cap ceiling didn’t force the Leafs into trading him to Ottawa in the 2019 off-season, it’s entirely possible he’d still be wearing Blue and White. But the salary he could command – he now earns $3.6 million – necessitated a deal out of Toronto. And although it’s likely Brown will secure a raise when his UFA seasons arrive, it’s not like we’re going to see him break the bank. If Dorion and team owner Eugene Melnyk decide his contract ask is too rich for them, they can ship him out at next season’s trade deadline as a pure rental. But if you trade Brown away right now, you’re going to be looking all summer long for an affordable, productive forward almost exactly like him. That’s not good management.
No, in this case, good management is realizing what Brown brings to the table, and holding onto him through next season. If Dorion has improved the team to the degree they’re playoff contenders, he might be able to convince Brown to take a little less to remain a Senator. Hockey players are creatures of comfort, and so long as they know management hasn’t given up on them, they’re almost always going to show loyalty to their current employer. If Brown continues to feel comfortable in Ottawa, and if he remains a dressing-room leader, he can easily cement a working relationship with the Sens that stretches well into his thirties.
Sure, the Senators ultimately are going to do as far as high-end stars Tim Stutzle, Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot carry them, but Stanley Cup-winning teams always have a wealth of secondary scoring talent, and that’s what Brown can be for them, for now and for the years ahead. There’s no impetus today to trade him away. Even if it meant getting a couple of prospects or draft picks, the return for Brown probably won’t be as high this season as it will be next spring. If Brown so chooses, he can tell Dorion what teams he sees as a good fit, not just for a single playoff run, but as a longer-term solution. That picture seems a little foggier for Brown this year, especially with many teams tight against the cap ceiling. Things may change drastically in the next 12 months, and a team that might not be a buyer that Brown is attracted to may change their minds by next year.
For today, though, the best solution is to leave Brown alone, and see how his output changes on what in theory should be a better Senators squad. He hasn’t done anything to make Ottawa give up on him; to the contrary, he has only endeared himself to Sens fans. That ought to earn him a little bit of loyalty at this fickle time of the NHL calendar.