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Top 25 Under 25: #14 JT Brown

Talented and versatile winger J.T. Brown spent two years at the University of Minnesota-Duluth following a two-year stint with the Waterloo Black Hawks of the USHL, and in spite of eventually racking up 84 points in 81 NCAA games (1.03 PPG) went undrafted in the NHL, entering the market in 2012 as a highly-coveted free agent forward that somehow managed to slip through the cracks.

Here’s how the panel ranked the 5’10, 170 pound forward:

Kyle Alexander John Fontana Clark Brooks Clare Austin Patti McDonald Mike Gallimore
15 14 10 13 15 18

It’s easy to forget that when Brown was lured to Tampa Bay, it was done with the promise of NHL playing time right away and a spot in the team’s top-6, something it’s likely no other organization was able to offer. Tampa Bay was willing to burn a year of his entry-level contract by playing him in 5 games at the end of the lost 2011-2012 season, setting him up to become a restricted (and eventually unrestricted) free agent earlier in his career.

From an Upper Deck piece last November:

In his sophomore year, Brown enjoyed an offensive boost that saw him tally 47 points (24g-23a) in 39 games and finish third amongst all WCHA players for goals scored. Then it was apparent that teams finally started to take notice. It was also then that there were NHL suitors knocking on his door; and there were plenty of them, too. At that point, Brown was no longer an undervalued undrafted college hockey player that had somehow slipped through the scout’s files. He had become a desirable free agent with the capability of boosting any teams offensive output. Interestingly enough, in being bypassed when he was draft eligible, Brown actually earned a unique advantage over his peers whose rights had already been drafted and maintained by NHL teams.

Ultimately, after assessing his opportunities amongst all the teams vying for his services, Brown chose the Tampa Bay Lightning. “Fit wise, I thought Tampa would be a great opportunity,” said Brown. “They have a great coaching staff both at the NHL and AHL levels and great ownership. For me, that made it pretty easy.” For the Lightning, finding a fit for Brown was no problem, either. Within days of playing his final game at UMD, Lightning coach Guy Boucher was already entrusting him with minutes reserved for a team’s top-six forward core. Not only that, Brown got to play on a line with veteran Teddy Purcell and the Lightning’s all-time leading goal and point scorer, Vincent Lecavalier.

Choosing the Lightning over some of the other teams who were reportedly courting him has been cited as evidence that what Jeff Vinik and Steve Yzerman are building in Tampa Bay is working. Perception is often reality, and despite some recent failings in the NHL standings, players are taking notice of the high-quality organization that Tampa Bay has reconstructed over the past few years.

Guy Boucher was impressed with Brown, and after his brief NHL debut he looked poised to permanently crack the NHL lineup heading into the 2012-2013 season, adding more speed, skill, and physicality to a top-6 that is often criticized for an overabundance of finesse and a lack of balance.

Unfortunately a broken collarbone sustained during last season’s NHL lockout while playing in the AHL proved to be a devastating setback for Brown, who was surpassed on the depth chart by several other prospects while he rehabilitated. Once a guy expected to compete for a permanent NHL roster spot at the start of the 2012-2013 season, Brown is now, a year later, fighting a logjam of young wingers for an opportunity to crack the NHL roster, and likely remains behind Ondrej Palat, Richard Panik, and Brett Connolly on the organizational depth chart, as we saw at the beginning of this season when the final cuts were made and the NHL regular season began.

With Guy Boucher gone, Brown has instead found himself in a different situation — with his AHL coach Jon Cooper now coaching the parent club in Tampa Bay, Brown got a full year of indoctrination in Cooper’s systems. He knows what style of hockey Cooper wants his guys to play and he’s developed chemistry with some of the players that remain at the AHL level and some that got a call-up alongside their once and future coach, though for now, Brown remains down in the minor leagues.

Brown, however, continues to work hard as he battles to make it back to the NHL for a more permanent stay than a 5-game audition. With several top-line players from the AHL Syracuse Crunch a season ago now up with Tampa Bay, he’s part of a veteran core for the Crunch, a team that expects to once again compete for an AHL championship despite losing the league’s MVP and the leading scorer from the playoffs. Brown will be asked to step into that scoring void and provide an offensive spark, as well as some leadership for a very young Syracuse Crunch club that is regularly icing a lot of player getting their first taste of North American professional hockey.

But a season of time spent in the bottom-6 in the AHL isn’t necessarily a knock on Brown — it’s a testament to the organizational depth at forward, and it gives Brown an element to his game that a lot of other young forwards don’t have. It makes him more versatile, capable of sliding up and down the depth chart and playing different roles as needed. So while he has the skill to play offensive minutes and score big goals, he can also be deployed as a defensive/checking winger with unusual skill and speed for a player in that role, even in the NHL.

In a 6-1 dismantling of the Rochester Americans on Saturday night, Brown showed some of his offensive tools, recording a power play goal to open the scoring and an assist as the Crunch dismantled the Amerks in the second period, outshooting them 20-1 while spending a good portion of the period on the man advantage. So Brown still has the same offensive upside as always. Putting together a strong season in the AHL while continuing to develop all aspects of his game will be his next step to a earning his way back to the NHL.

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