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Hear me out: J.T. Brown should get a chance on the third line

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A look at the evolution of J.T. Brown’s game and why he might be a fit on Tampa’s third line.

NHL: Detroit Red Wings at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The second thing I ever wrote at Raw Charge was a fan post about J.T. Brown being a similarly impactful player to Ryan Callahan at that point in each of their careers. I wrote that piece to highlight the now well-documented issues with the Callahan contract, and also to showcase a player who I felt was underrated and deserved to be acknowledged for his performance. Two and a half years later, Callahan’s career has continued on the trajectory outlined in that article but Brown’s hasn’t.

In this piece, we’re going to work through some numbers to show what changed for Brown, particularly last season, and I’m going to make a case for something that might seem a little unintuitive at first glance: I think J.T. Brown should get a chance to play as the third line right wing alongside Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn.

Let’s start with a quick look at how J.T. Brown’s numbers have changed over the last four seasons. With the triumphant return of corsica.hockey, we’ll be relying on them as the data source for this section. If you haven’t already, go over and check out the revamped site.

The blue stats in the chart below are termed “skill indicators” here. They measure things like scoring and impact on shots and expected goals. These are the stats we use to try to assess how much a player is helping their team win games. The orange stats are termed “physicality indicators.” These are measures that show a player is doing the things that often get lauded in traditional analyses but haven’t been proven to have any meaningful effect on helping teams win games.

I’ve mentioned previously that I believe Brown transitioned into a typical fourth-line grinder role last season and that it was a big reason for his drop in production. But for some reason, I never thought to measure it. Now that I have, I’m a bit shocked to see the numbers reflect the stark change in his game over the last four years. Last season, he completely altered his game from a solid bottom six winger who didn’t score but made the team better, into a player whose role was primarily to hit and take penalties.

Brown’s game score (a stat that measures overall impact) dropped. His scoring dropped. He had a negative impact on the on-ice results. Simultaneously, his hits and penalty minutes spiked to new career highs. In some ways, the trend has been present for all four seasons. But it was most pronounced last season with the skill aspects of his game seemingly being sacrificed completely in favor of the physical ones. While some of last year’s changes could be due to a shift in team playing style to compensate for injuries to skill players, it doesn't fully explain the extreme changes to Brown's game.

The logical next step is to wonder why this would happen. Did Brown choose to make this change? Did the coaching staff ask him to make this change? Was it a combination of both? A sort of unspoken understanding that someone has to do it so he stepped up and did it? We’ll likely never know the answer to those questions, but whatever the reason, that change turned J.T. Brown from a prototypical bottom six forward for the modern NHL, into a player who might find himself on the fringes after this season if the trend continues.

As you can probably gather, I don’t think this trend should continue. In fact, I’m proposing a direction that has the potential to maximize all of the positive aspects of Brown’s game and eliminate some of the unhelpful developments from last season.

On Monday, the Lightning ran a new line of Cedric Paquette centering Chris Kunitz and Ryan Callahan. A one-game sample is far too little to draw conclusions from, but the line looked great and makes a ton of sense in terms of skill set and player fit. All three are solid defensively and play a similar crash-the-net offensive game. I suspect the coaches liked what they saw and will want to keep that line together, swapping in Gabriel Dumont for Paquette when necessary. If that’s the case, it opens up Callahan’s previous spot on the right wing alongside Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn.

One option for the Lightning is to play eleven forwards and seven defenders, which they did in their last two games. If they do that, Brown and either Dumont or Paquette would be the likely scratches. But if they want to use a twelve forward lineup, I would put Brown on the third line instead of Dumont or Paquette. I would also tell him that we don’t need him to fight. We don’t need him to hit. We just need him to be the J.T. Brown who was so crucial to the bottom six prior to last season. Because if he does this, the Johnson line might get an influx of the speed and aggression it needs.

My case for this change in player usage is based mostly on neutral zone play. All of the neutral zone data that follows is via Corey Sznajder who somehow manages to manually track entire NHL seasons of data so that we can use it to dig deeper into player evaluation.

The charts below show Brown’s neutral zone performance in 2013-2014 and 2016-17. These are the only two seasons where we have neutral zone tracking, so we can’t show a full trend like above. But the snapshot of these two seasons combined with the summary trend established earlier is enough to tell a meaningful story. The top of the dashboard shows 13-14 and the bottom shows 16-17. The charts on the left are zone exits and the right are zone entries.

In 13-14, Brown was one of the best players on the Lightning at getting the puck out of the defensive zone and doing so with possession. He was also one of the stronger players at gaining the offensive zone although he did so less often with possession than other players on the team. In 16-17 he not the strongest on the team in zone exits and also saw a big drop on zone entries from his place in 13-14. This fits with what we saw in the analysis above. Brown doesn’t score much, so it makes sense that he would need to excel in the neutral zone in order to have the positive impacts he achieved prior to last season.

From the charts, we can also see that neither Johnson or Killorn excel at zone exits but Johnson is exceptional at zone entries. From a skill fit perspective, that creates a J.T. Brown-sized hole on that line. He’s been a reliable defensive player his whole career. He’s shown that he can start the transition game by getting the puck out of the defensive zone. If he could do that and free up Johnson and Killorn to focus on the attack, we might see an increase in their output. And as an added bonus, Brown has the speed to join the rush and create some havoc on the forecheck.

If you’re wondering if this line has ever played together before, they have but in an incredibly small sample. In 30 minutes on the ice as a unit, they have a shot share of 53% and an expected goal share of 77%. We can’t draw any conclusions from such a minuscule amount of time but that’s at least a positive indicator that there might be something worth exploring here.

One of the main goals of coaching is to understand each player’s individual strengths and weaknesses in order to maximize their positive impact on the team’s ability to win games. Looking at J.T. Brown’s numbers last season, I feel confident in saying that the team didn’t succeed in doing that with him. I see a player who has a toolbox with a nice selection of valuable tools but for whatever reason - coaching, personal choice, a little of both - left the most valuable ones in the box in favor of some of the least valuable ones.

Regardless of the specifics of his usage this year, I hope the coaching staff sees something similar and guides him back to path he was on prior to last season. Playing him with Johnson and Killorn is one possibility but there are likely others. The important thing is that the tone of his game is closer to where it was two years ago than where it was last season.

J.T. Brown has more to offer an NHL team that what the Lightning got last season. And if they don’t realize that, don’t be surprised if another team does and makes a valuable depth addition next summer in free agency. However it happens, I hope we get to see the J.T. Brown from two years ago again, because having one of the fastest players in the league spending most of his time in the press box or the penalty box is a waste. He has a lot offer on the ice and it would benefit the Lightning to realize that.