Is Connor Brown a fit for the Oilers?

Photo credit:© Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
1 year ago
It almost seems inevitable that Connor Brown will sign with the Edmonton Oilers on July 1st.
Coming off a three-year contract, Brown is a 29-year-old winger drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Brown spent his first three full NHL seasons with Toronto, and was then dealt to Ottawa, where he played his next three seasons. 
Brown was heavily linked to Edmonton in the summer of 2022. On July 13, Bob McKenzie even tweeted that trade talks were close, stating it would be highly likely that Brown would become an Oiler, but just hours later, Ottawa eventually traded Brown to the Washington Capitals for a second-round pick. Currently, Brown is a pending UFA.
This off-season, the rumours surrounding Brown and Edmonton have heated up once again. Darren Dreger on Insider Trading stated that the Oilers have an interest in Brown, while Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek have also linked Brown’s name to the Oilers on the 32 Thoughts Podcast. On OilersNow, Bob Stauffer has been on the Connor Brown train for several months now. Even Brown himself stated that he would love playing alongside Connor McDavid
Frank Seravalli noted that the league-wide interest in Brown is significant, and at this point, it seems quite evident that the Oilers are one of the teams seriously interested.
A couple of weeks back, I outlined why the Oilers would heavily benefit from a strong scoring winger. To summarize, Edmonton out-chanced Vegas in the second round at 5v5, but struggled to finish those chances. Additionally, for the past two seasons, Connor McDavid’s 5v5 production has been significantly held back by a lack of finishing by his non-Draisaitl linemates. In 22-23, McDavid ranked first in the league in 5v5 shot assists per 60, but 86th in actual assist rate. 
With Kailer Yamamoto’s departure seeming quite certain, whether it be a trade or buyout, it’s clear that the Oilers need a top-six scoring winger, preferably a right-handed RW. Connor Brown could potentially be that guy.
One major risk surrounding Brown is the injury he sustained early in 2022-23. Brown underwent surgery for an ACL tear in November, playing just four games in total with Washington this past season. 
However, Seravalli noted that Brown’s knee now seems fine, and hasn’t faced any issues at this point. Not to mention, his injury history aside from the ACL tear isn’t much of a significant concern, as Brown played all games in four of his last six seasons. 
Here’s a look at his 5v5 production rates throughout those years.
Brown had a strong rookie season with Toronto in 2016-17, producing 20 goals. He scored 0.82 5v5 goals per hour, a rate superior to 83 percent of the league at the time. 
His scoring would decline the next two seasons, most notably in 2018-19 where his scoring rate ranked at a subpar 41st percentile, but his shooting percentage was at a career-low. He would bounce back in his next three seasons with the Ottawa Senators. 
Aside from 2018-19, which seems to be the outlier, Brown has an established history of quality 5v5 goal-scoring in the NHL, something that the top-six needs.
Additionally, another metric I often use is GAx – goals above expected. It’s a stat used to evaluate how well a player can finish relative to the shots and scoring chances they take. At 5v5, Brown has scored above expected in 5 of his last 6 seasons at 5v5 (excluding 22-23), and ranked in the 74th percentile in GAx in his tenure with Ottawa. Yet another encouraging sign. 
Furthermore, using stats from AllThreeZones, here’s a look at Brown’s microstats from 20-21 to 21-22 to obtain an idea of his playing style.
Brown was an exceptional play-maker in Ottawa. He was much more of a pure scorer in Toronto, but with the Senators, his assist rates considerably improved. Brown’s rate of scoring chance and high-danger shot assists per 60 would rank third on the Oilers, behind only McDavid and Draisaitl.
Brown is also an active player in transition, as he carries and dumps the puck into the offensive zone at relatively high rates. Not to mention, he’s generally an effective forechecker, ranking quite well at recovering dump-ins.
His on-ice defensive results aren’t too shabby either. The Senators allowed fewer shots and scoring chances at 5v5 with Brown on-ice as opposed to the team with Brown off-ice, and he’s generally quite involved at retrieving pucks in the d-zone and breaking it out in transition. 
Overall, Brown is a well-rounded offensive winger. He isn’t exactly a volume shooter, but as shown above, his scoring/finishing results on the shots he does take are quite good. This is a very useful player who would benefit Edmonton in several areas, and could be a nice stylistic fit on McDavid’s wing.
If the Oilers sign Brown, he would be a replacement for Kailer Yamamoto. Yamamoto’s 5v5 production rate ranks 292nd in the league among all players with 1000 5v5 minutes in the past three seasons. 
I’d be pretty confident in saying that Brown would be an upgrade, as Brown’s 5v5 production rates are much better, and he hasn’t spent significant time alongside the two best offensive players in the world. With Ottawa, his most common teammate was Nikita Zaitsev, and the center he played the most with was Chris Tierney. It’s safe to say that Brown’s numbers would likely look even better with one of McDavid and Draisaitl. He has the potential to score 20-25+ goals in Edmonton without significant power-play time.
Now, what about Brown’s contract? 
Per EvolvingHockey’s contract projection model, Brown is projected at $2.1M for a one-year deal, and $3M-4M over multiple years. Note that the model doesn’t exactly account for the fact that Brown just had an ACL injury, so I’d expect the realistic number to be a bit lower than that. Edmonton could afford a one-year deal of just under $2M.
However, per CapFriendly (and firstly pointed out right here), teams can “exceed the salary cap due to performance bonuses by the maximum performance bonus cushion amount of 7.5 percent of the upper limit.”  To be eligible for this, players must meet one of the following criteria; the player is on their ELC, the player has signed a one-year deal and is over 35, or the player has signed a one-year contract after returning from a long-term injury (has played 400 or more games, and spent 100 or more days on the Injured Reserve in the last year of their most recent contract).
Brown meets the requirements for the third criterion. Consequently, he could sign a very cheap one-year contract with numerous performance bonuses that would only count against the salary cap for next season, if Brown is able to hit those bonuses. This would be hugely beneficial for a team exceedingly tight to the cap like Edmonton, making Brown an even more appealing option. 
While it would negatively impact their cap situation in the summer of 2024, the cap ceiling is expected to significantly rise, and this option could allow them to maximize their contention chances for 2023-24.
If those bonuses do end up affecting next season’s salary cap, that means Brown hit those bonuses and produced at strong rates with Edmonton in 2023-24. If he doesn’t play well, it’s not the end of the world since the contract would be cheap (likely around ~$1M). Unlike their other top-six targets, such as Travis Konecny, you wouldn’t need assets to acquire him. Considering Edmonton’s current cap-situation, he would be a fairly low-risk option to take a bet on, and if he pans out, Edmonton could save their assets and remaining cap-space for a top-four RD.
It’s safe to say the possibility of Connor Brown signing with Edmonton seems relatively high. He’s not a world-beater, and his ACL injury from last season is a concern. However, as a well-rounded right-shot winger with strong offensive abilities, I believe Brown would be a fine fit with the Oilers on a cheap, one-year bonus-laden contract.
*All stats via Natural Stat Trick and EvolvingHockey unless stated otherwise
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