The Toronto Maple Leafs “stumbled on” Connor Brown a few years ago and are pleased with their discovery.
The Erie Otters captain was named the Ontario Hockey League’s most outstanding player for 2013-’14 on Tuesday. Brown led the league in scoring and set a franchise record with 45 goals and 83 assists in 68 games.
Chosen near the bottom of both his OHL and NHL drafts, the 20-year-old Toronto forward has played himself into a strong pro prospect.
He was the 251st pick out of 301 players four years ago in the OHL draft. The Leafs chose him in the sixth round, 156th overall, in 2012.
His buddy Matt Finn, captain of the Guelph Storm and a fellow Leafs prospect, recently said “With Connor, it’s always been about proving people wrong.”
But Brown says his motivation is more about the pursuit of his dream than spite.
“I definitely don’t think much has come easy, being late picks in both drafts,” he acknowledged during a conference call. “It’s just more incentive to work hard.
“I think I wanted to work hard not to prove people wrong, but I know I needed to work harder to have a shot at signing an NHL contract and having a shot at making the NHL one day.”
Brown has signed a three-year, entry level contract with the Leafs. He caught their eye in 2011 when scouts went to Erie, Pa., to evaluate Leafs prospect Sondre Olden.
“Each time we went down to watch this Maple Leaf pick, we’d stumble on Connor Brown,” Leafs director of player Jim Hughes said. “Erie was having a difficult year and the scores, the deficits, never changed Connor’s desire, never changed his moods during the course of the game.
“He was always focused and it didn’t matter if he was winning 5-1 or losing 5-1, his personality never changed. He always played for the love of the game. He always played with passion. We obviously have big plans for Connor moving forward.”
Brown led Erie to the best season in its 18-year history with 52 wins and 106 points. The Otters lost this year’s Western Conference final to Guelph in five games.
Brown had eight goals and 10 assists in 14 playoff games. The five-foot-11 170-pound right-winger is currently practising with Toronto’s American Hockey League team — the Marlies — at the MasterCard Centre.
He intends to spend most of the summer there building strength and working on his skating skills with former Canadian pairs figure skater Barb Underhill. Hughes says Brown needs time to develop “man-strength.”
“Come September, I think my game and my physical state, I think I’ll be ready to play with better and stronger players,” Brown said.
Brown is the first Otter to win the OHL scoring title and the second to earn the Red Tilson Trophy as league MVP after Brad Boyes in both 2001 and 2002.
The trophy is named in honour of Albert (Red) Tilson, who was a former Oshawa General killed in action during the Second World War.
Brown led the league in power-play points with 54 and carried a plus-minus of plus-44 through the regular season. In a poll of Western Conference coaches, he was voted the best in a shootout, second in penalty killing and third in the smartest player category.
“Whoever is preparing to play hockey anywhere, will not outwork Connor Brown and his will to prepare,” Otters general manager Sherry Bassin said. “Whatever work ethic is necessary, whatever that measurement is, he’ll do more.”
Media members vote on the award and Brown was the clear winner with 321 points tabulated from 80 ballots. Oshawa Generals centre Scott Laughton was the runner-up with 120 points and top NHL draft prospect Sam Bennett of the Kingston Frontenacs was third with 68.
Previous winners include New York Islanders forward John Tavares (Oshawa, 2007), Nashville Predators defenceman Ryan Ellis (Windsor, 2011) and Florida Panthers defenceman Brian Campbell (Ottawa, 1999).
Vincent Trochek, the centre who won the award last year with the Plymouth Whalers, split this past season between the Panthers and their AHL team in San Antonio, Texas.
Brown is the OHL’s candidate for the Canadian Hockey League’s player of the year. He’ll be up against Sam Reinhart of the Western Hockey League’s Kootenay Ice and Anthony Mantha of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Val-d’Or Foreurs.
The winner will be announced May 24 during the MasterCard Memorial Cup in London, Ont.