Better late than never: Delayed by injury, Josh Brown's NHL career is starting to take off

Former sixth-round pick Josh Brown makes Panthers' opening night roster

By David Dwork - Digital Editor
(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Florida Panthers defenseman Josh Brown celebrates his first NHL goal with left wing Dryden Hunt and center Henrik Borgstrom.

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - Sometimes, things fall right into place. 

Just not always the way you think they will. 

Back in January, Josh Brown was working through his third season with the AHL's Springfield Thunderbirds. 

He was feeling good about his game and getting back into a groove after missing the first couple of months of the season with a broken arm.

"I thought I had a chance of making the team out of camp last year but I took a slap shot off my ulna and broke it, so I knew I was going to have to start the year in Springfield," Brown said after Tuesday's practice.

It was quite a shift in mentality to go from potentially playing in the NHL to having to sit out nearly a quarter of the season and then start back in the American league. 

Fortunately for Brown, he was able to pick right back up where he left off and it wasn't long before his hardworking routine in Massachusetts was interrupted by a sudden work trip to the Sunshine State. 

Panthers' rearguard MacKenzie Weegar was placed on IR after suffering a concussion during a game in Montreal, and Florida needed to fill his roster spot. 

General manager Dale Tallon made the call and brought up the big-bodied defenseman in the hopes that his developmental course would be fast-tracked in Florida.

"I thought I played well when I came back from injury but I didn't know if I was going (to get called) up or not," Brown said. "When (Springfield) coach (Geordie Kinnear) called me in and he told me I was going up, it was pretty cool. I called my mom right away, obviously, then my girlfriend."

Brown laughed as he remembered the flight delay waiting for him when he arrived at the airport. 

Even when your dream is coming true and you're heading to the NHL, nothing ever goes as smoothly as planned. 

"I didn't end up getting into the hotel until 3 a.m.," Brown said. "I wasn't even entirely sure I was playing the next day. I knew I was getting called up but I didn't know if anyone was hurt or anything, but then I came in and saw my name up on the board and was like 'I better have a good nap this afternoon,' which, of course, I didn't because I was thinking about the game so much."

It was a long time coming for the 2013 sixth-round pick. 

He played well enough to stick around for 37 games with Florida, gaining valuable experience at the top level.

He averaged 13:18 on the ice, picked up his first NHL goal (and assist), and dropped the gloves four times.

Brown's cup of coffee with the Panthers sent him into the summer thirsty for more and extremely confident in his abilities. 

"I just knew I was going to do what I do during the summer – work as hard as possible and come in and play my game," Brown said. "I knew that I offered something a little different than the other guys did so, just as long as I played my game, I knew I'd be in the conversation."

It's a mature approach from the 25-year-old native of London, Ontario. 

Keep things simple. 

It allowed Brown to focus on one main objective; calling South Florida his permanent home. 

"Obviously, that was the goal," he said. "After how last season ended and being up here, over the summer I just wanted to work hard and make sure I kept my spot."

(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

San Jose Sharks defenseman Brenden Dillon and Florida Panthers defenseman Josh Brown fight during an NHL hockey game on Monday, Jan. 21, 2019, in Sunrise, Fla.

Brown came into training camp as one of 19 defensemen vying for a job. 

Six of them – Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle, Mike Matheson, Anton Stralman, Mark Pysyk and Weegar – have one-way contracts and were almost certain to make the final roster. They did. 

That left Brown among a group of 13 players competing for one spot. Not the best odds, but Brown's consistency and ability as a smooth skating defensive defenseman caught his new head coach's eye.

"He gives us some physicality. He gives us some size," Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville said of Brown. "I thought he had a real simple effectiveness back there where he can kill plays and join the rush. He's got a little bit of offense to his game but, certainly, we like his presence, his size and his effectiveness."

If Quenneville wants to squeeze some more offense out of Brown, he's on the right track by pairing him up with Yandle, Florida's premiere point-producing defenseman. 

It goes a long way toward showing the trust that Quenneville has in Brown, because skating alongside Yandle means Brown is going to see plenty of shifts. 

"Playing with (Yandle), you're going to play (a lot of minutes) and you're going to play some key situations," Quenneville said. "We want to encourage both of those guys to get involved in the attack."

Brown and Yandle have shared the ice throughout camp and, while Brown has enjoyed his time paired with the veteran, he said he recognizes the challenge it presents. 

"Anytime you get a chance to play with a guy like Keith Yandle, making all those plays, it's been a lot of fun," Brown said. "They've been getting me to get up ice and try to play a little more offensively with him, too, so that's been a little bit of a learning curve."

"Brownie's got some undercover skill," Yandle said following Tuesday's practice. "He can make a first pass really well. You look at him and you see how big he is, you'd think he'd just be a defender, but he can move the puck. He gets to pucks well. He's not afraid to make a pass and that helps us as a team, and it fits into Q's system."

It will be interesting to see how things play out as the first weeks of the season progress. 

Former NHL defenseman and new Panthers television analyst Jeff Chychrun has been watching training camp closely.

Discussing the Brown and Yandle combo, Chychrun said he believes Quenneville is putting Brown in a situation to not only succeed, but thrive. 

"Playing with a guy like Yandle, who possesses the puck so much, it takes the pressure off and allows you to skate a little more without the puck and just have fun out there," Chychrun said. 

He just may be on to something. 

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