In today’s NHL, there are few commodities as hot as puck-moving defenders.
With so many teams focusing on speed and a quick transition game, having mobile blue liners can be an absolute game-changer. It’s intriguing then, that T.J. Brennan has never gotten much of a shot in the big leagues.
The Toronto Marlies defender – currently an unrestricted free-agent – has been among the best defenders in the AHL for the past three seasons. In 2013-14, Brennan piled up an astounding 25 goals and 72 points in 76 games for the Toronto Marlies, unsurprisingly leading all AHL blue-liners in both categories and earning Defenseman of the Year honors.
Not seeing a single NHL game throughout that exceptional season, Brennan signed with the New York Islanders as an unrestricted free-agent, only to get traded to Chicago in the deal that sent Nick Leddy to Long Island.
After a tumultuous game of musical chairs between the different organizations, he was sent to the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs, for whom he posted a respectable 36 points in 54 games. Midway through his first season with Rockford, Brennan was traded back to the Maple Leafs, allowing him to finish the season with the Marlies, scoring 16 points in 19 games back in Toronto.
Last season, Brennan ramped up his offensive game with the Leafs’ AHL club once again, posting another 25-goal campaign, alongside 68 total points in 69 games. The performance was strong enough to earn him his second Defenseman of the Year title in three years.
Throughout Brennan’s tremendous three-year stretch in the AHL, in which he’s racked up 62 goals and 192 points, he’s earned very little opportunity to prove himself at the sport’s highest level.
He saw only six games of NHL action in 2014-15, despite coming off a year as the AHL’s best on the back end, and saw only seven games with the Leafs this season.
To be fair, it isn’t difficult to ascertain why exactly Brennan hasn’t flourished in the big leagues just yet. While offense is clearly not an issue for the 27-year-old, there are certainly significant holes in his defensive game.
Brennan’s own head coach with the Marlies, Sheldon Keefe, had some interesting words on the subject recently, saying the following to Sportsnet:
“He’s obviously had a tremendous amount of success in the American Hockey League in producing points. There’s a lot more to the game than just that. He’s getting older now, and despite that he continues to work every day and believes he can be an NHL player. He puts in the time. He wants to watch video. He wants feedback. So he’s not comfortable by any means.”
Brennan’s numbers certainly suggest he’s capable of contributing at the NHL level. The offensively potent rearguard has a fantastic shot, allowing him to score the majority of his goals from a fair distance away from the net.
That bodes well for translating his game to the grind of the big leagues, as Brennan isn’t necessarily doing anything outrageous to earn his points. Just simplified, well-executed offensive efforts.
In a situation where producing at a feverish pace is often the best way to earn a call-up, it’s easy to understand why he’s likely thinking offense each time he steps onto the ice. But that doesn’t necessarily mean this is all he’s capable of, or that his game will be as tilted up ice if given a role with an NHL club.
He simply requires some detailed coaching and a blue line partner who can stay at home and anchor the defensive side of the game – allowing Brennan to focus on picking his spots and learning when best to jump into the play.
Imperfect as he may be, it’s rare to find a defenseman who score at nearly a point per game pace in two of three consecutive seasons. It seems absurd to think there isn’t a single team that could benefit from his skillset, and give him enough of a role to prove he can be of value defensively as well.
Luckily for Brennan, he’ll get the chance to find out, as he’s currently an unrestricted free agent sure to attract some desperate suitors.
After leading the Marlies in scoring in 2015-16, adding nine points in 15 playoff contests, Brennan had the following to say about his pending free agent status:
“There’s a lot of positives that happened throughout this year. Now, the business side – I guess I did my part. You understand what you have to offer to other teams, and you take that moving forward with a realistic approach, and you go from there.”
What he has to offer is fairly clear – a very cheap gamble that simply requires some defensive tune-ups, but carries the potential of finding a game-changing puck-moving talent on the back end.
There are plenty of teams that could benefit from Brennan’s services. However, the usual culprits looking for defensive help won’t necessarily be a part of that mix, as Brennan isn’t someone who’s going to come in and fix anything right away.
Rather his success is dependant on finding the perfect fit – if used in a limited role and paired with a solid defensive-minded rearguard, Brennan could thrive offensively. The usage of Justin Schultz in Pittsburgh is a good example of the type of role he could succeed in.
Limited usage shouldn’t be much of a problem, considering he’ll come cheap. As of right now, the leading offer for his services seems to have come from the KHL, who offered him a “lucrative” deal of $1.5 million for one year.
The Arizona Coyotes could be one intriguing option. After trading for the rights to sign former Dallas Stars blue-liner Alex Goligoski, and inviting him for a two-day trip to sell him on the organization, it’s clear Arizona is looking to beef up their offense from the back end.
Coyotes General Manager John Chayka had this to say about their desire to add Goligoski:
The latter half of that statement indicates the difference in talent level between Goligoski and Brennan, as the former is a well-rounded force while the latter still requires work. But Brennan can certainly contribute in regards to the “new age of defense” and improving Arizona’s transition game.
He could serve as another minor addition to Chayka’s effort, playing on the club’s third pairing while Goligoski plies his trade in the top four. If the former Stars defender opts not to sign in the desert, Brennan could also serve as a cheap backup option — he won’t have the same impact, but he can add to the cause offensively.
Key to consider is the fact that Arizona has only two defenseman signed for 2016-17 at this point – Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Zbynek Michalek – with eight free-agents to decide between. Retooling their blue line on the fly already, it wouldn’t be difficult to find a stay-at-home partner for Brennan if he found a home with the club.
Another option could be the New Jersey Devils. The club is starved for offensive help after finishing with the fewest goals of any NHL team last season, and their current defense certainly doesn’t inspire much confidence.
No Devils defender had more than 21 points last season, however, New Jersey’s stifling defense did manage to limit chances from opposing offenses, finishing with the eighth-lowest goals-against per game mark and the eighth-lowest shots against per game mark.
If they could add Brennan into their defensive scheme while also utilizing his offensive talent, it would undoubtedly be worth the gamble. In fact, it wouldn’t even be much of a risk, as the Devils have over $25 million in projected cap space and won’t need to give up much of that to get the former Marlies star.
The options won’t be hard to find for Brennan, as plenty of clubs are sure to take a long look at his offensive skill – especially after watching the Pittsburgh Penguins ride their quick transition game to a Stanley Cup championship. It would be foolish to pass on Brennan’s offensive skill, and if a club can insulate him properly, he could wind up being quite a bargain.