When J.T. Brown was signed as an undrafted free agent forward out of the University of Minnesota-Duluth, he was fresh off a 47 points in 39 games campaign as a senior and a national championship the year before as a junior. All expectations were as he joined the Tampa Bay Lightning for five games fresh from the NCAA (burning a year of his entry level contract) that he would eventually develop into a scoring-line forward capable of contributing in the top-6.
Those days might still come, but after 63 games as a rookie in the NHL, Brown has already proven to be an effective bottom-6 winger and useful penalty killer capable of playing on either side.
Here's how the panel ranked him:
|Kyle Alexander||John Fontana||Clare Austin||Mike Gallimore||Clark Brooks|
The rankings reflect Brown's position among the younger NHL contributors; you'll note that names like Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, and Tyler Johnson have not yet appeared on our countdown as those players have had more success offensively than Brown has so far as an NHLer.
That's not to say that Brown can never and will never be a scorer in the NHL; the tools are certainly all there. He's got terrific straight line speed on the rush and good quickness in and around the net. One problem he's faced has been his role; as more of a grinder/energy line player, he's expected to dump and chase, so a good head of steam in the neutral zone is often wasted with a harmless chip to the corner that rarely results in meaningful offense. He does have good puck retrieval skills and is one of the better forecheckers on the Lightning already, however, so if his role in 2013-14 is what should be expected from him moving forward, Jon Cooper and his staff can feel comfortable that Brown will succeed.
The thing that stands out most from Brown's first season in the NHL was how the guy just could not seem to get a bounce to go his way:
Brown had plenty of these moments throughout the season, and you can see it in the numbers -- in spite of 113 shots fired on goal and many more good scoring chances that missed the net or were snuffed out by a defender, JT Brown scored just four goals. 4. He shot 3.5% for the year as a result and didn't get much help from his linemates, as the team shot just 5.53% at 5v5 with Brown on the ice.
Now, you might think that those poor shooting results were at least partly due to skating on a lower line with less skilled players, but that's not necessarily the case. His most common linemates were Nikita Kucherov and Nate Thompson, and for whatever reason, that trio was great at controlling the puck (54% Corsi or better with both guys, which is near elite levels) but terrible at controlling goals (50% Goals For with Kucherov and a measly 41.2% with Thompson). Kucherov has demonstrable puck skills and is both a good scorer himself and a very good playmaker, but for whatever reason, it didn't materialize into tangible results (read: goals) alongside Brown the way it did at the AHL level.
The line crashed and banged, dumped and chased, and generally made life hell for their opponents. The problem was in putting pucks in the net, which is something they simply failed to do on a consistent basis.
The future outlook is uncertain with Brown after re-upping with the Lightning for two more years this summer with a very team-friendly cap hit.
It's a near lock that he'll have a spot in the nightly NHL lineup as his style of play combined with his speed is unique among the current crop of forwards. The best guess seems to be that he'll start the year on the fourth line, presumably with recent signees Brian Boyle and Brenden Morrow; while neither guy have the dynamic game-breaking ability that Kucherov has, they've both demonstrated significant goal-scoring prowess in the NHL in the past. Morrow in particular is a career 15.6% shooter, which is actually pretty damn good. While the wheels aren't really there any more for Morrow, if Brown can help the bottom line to continue to control the puck, the new additions might help him see it go in the net a bit more in 2014-15.