He’s been drafted by his hometown team, he’s leading the Ontario Hockey League in scoring, and is the captain of the top team in the OHL 15 games into the young campaign. But for the Erie Otters’ Connor Brown, seeing his name on the positive side of the plus/minus ledger may be his most proud accomplishment.
When asked if being +11 feels a lot better, Brown laughs and lets two years of frustration come out: “Exactly,” he said.
“[2011-12] was obviously a pretty tough year. Looking back on it I take a lot of pride in getting drafted at -72. That was something,” Brown said. “Even when I was at that big number, I was never cheating for offense. I was always committed defensively and working hard on the backcheck, but it can be tough when you’re playing big minutes on a team that’s struggling.
“This year it’s really evident with our team that’s doing better, that all of our numbers are looking better. [Plus/minus] is a huge number when it comes to your team’s success, but that’s gigantic. Coming into this season, one of my goals is to get up to around +20. I’m not there yet, but it’s going to come.”
And with that he knocked on his head.
In his rookie season, Brown led the 10-win team with 53 points in 68 games. He also led the team with a -72. Last year, he boosted those totals by 61, to a -11 while adding 16 points. This year, in 15 games, he’s already a +11. After 15 games, Brown leads the OHL in scoring with 11 goals and 31 points.
He’s also captain of a league-leading squad. Brown explained that the attitude within the locker room has changed dramatically.
“It’s just our swagger and our confidence,” he said “Last year and the year before, we were going into games almost just hoping to win. Now we go into any game, against any team, in any building, and we expect to win.
“We expect that of ourselves and we expect nothing less. That’s a huge thing and the room is great. The character in the room is unbelievable. It’s really exciting. It’s our team and I think we’ve got the right pieces.”
The fans in Erie are excited about this new, winning version of the Otters.
“I think after the home-opener win, they were on board,” Brown added. “The fans in Erie, they haven’t had a lot of fun times in a while. They haven’t seen a playoff series win in about nine years, so they’re pretty excited that we have a good team this year and they deserve a good year out of us. We’re going to try to give it to them.”
Brown also brings back the knowledge that comes from participating in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ off-season camps. Drafted in the sixth round, 156th overall, of the 2012 NHL Draft, Brown was able to spend all of rookie camp and a couple of days in the main camp before being sent back to Erie.
“It was pretty spectacular. You feel a little more confident when you come back from a camp like that and you feel a bit better about your game. You kind of know what you need to do to improve that season,” he said. “The main difference is that they’re men: the size, the speed of the game. And for me, my main thing is to get bigger. I’m still on the smaller side, so I’m making strides to get bigger — even in-season, which is tough. I’m trying and that’s my main focus.”
Brown knows that at 5’11 and 170 pounds, he needs to fill out his frame. But he knows not to expect overnight results.
“It’s a long process. It’s all about eating well. I mean eating a lot, but eating well. And staying on top of your nutrition and making sure that you get enough sleep,” Brown explained. “So much stuff goes into it. Also a lot of it comes with time. With time I’m sure I’ll get naturally bigger and naturally stronger, but I’ve got to help push that process along as much as possible.”
The Toronto-born Brown admitted that being drafted by his home-town team was a dream come true for not just himself, but his entire family.
That’s been absolutely huge,” he said. “I’ve been a huge Leafs fan since I was born and my family are all huge Leafs’ fans. It was pretty spectacular.”
Not to mention the ancillary benefits of being a hometown boy.
“Being from Toronto, I get to utilize their facilities throughout the summer. I get to work out at the MasterCard Centre there, so I really couldn’t ask for a better situation,” he said, adding that he got to work out with Leafs’ strength and conditioning coach Anthony Belza and practiced with other local prospects like David Broll, Jamie Devane, Matt Finn, and Kurt Walker.
Closer to home, Brown has his older brother, Jeff, who spent three years in the OHL, including parts of three seasons with the Oshawa Generals and the latter half of his final campaign with the Windsor Spitfires. Jeff currently plays for the Varsity Blues after a year-long sojourn at Western.
“When I was coming into the OHL, I was also weighing the NCAA option,” Brown explained. [Jeff] was a huge factor in why I chose to go to the ‘O,” he said. “Now he’s using his [scholarship] package at the University of Toronto. He’s still playing great and even after university he’s got opportunities to play. I thought my best chance to become a hockey player was to come through this league.”
Brown is focused on the here and now. He’s leading the way on a team that’s leading the league. He finds himself atop the OHL scoring race and, other than that plus-20 goal, he’s keeping his options open.
“I’m not trying to put any numbers out because I don’t want to put any ceiling on my goals,” he said. “For me, the team’s success is related to any individual success we have. I’m the team captain, so if we go far it will reflect well on me.
“It’s been a tough few years, so to be honest with you I’m looking forward to a good, deep run in the playoffs.”
And is it more enjoyable coming to the rink when you play for a winning club?
“Yeah,” he said, with a mixture of relief and humour. “You have no idea.”
Follow Jason Menard on Twitter via @jaycmenard