The definition of development in the Cambridge English Dictionary states “the process in which someone or something grows or changes and becomes more advanced.”
With that in mind, it’s easy to picture Justin Brazeau’s headshot right next to it when you think about the OHL. The 13th round pick from the New Liskeard Cubs showed constant growth each season by upping his goal totals from six his rookie season, to a mind-blowing 61 in 68 games his overage season, before parlaying that into a two-year AHL contract with the Toronto Marlies.
Even after a strong rookie season in the ECHL with the Newfoundland Growlers (27 goals, 28 assists for 55 points in 57 games), one where he was named as the Growlers rookie of the year, Brazeau can look back fondly on his time with the North Bay Battalion.
“It was awesome,” he said. “You just need to look at my year after year. Especially under Stan [Butler], he really gave me the opportunity year after year, putting that trust in me that I can play there and get better and dominate.”
“It’s up to you to get better, and I took advantage of that,” Brazeau added.
For current Battalion General Manager Adam Dennis, he was able to see the progression first hand as an assistant coach with the Troops in three of Brazeau’s four years in North Bay.
“That’s what you want to see in your guys,” Dennis explained. “You want to see progression every year and adding things to your games and I think Justin is a great example of that. He’s also a great example of how everyone’s timeline is a little bit different.”
“He still hasn’t gotten to the end of his rope by any stretch,” he continued. “As a late-round pick, a guy who had a massive growth spurt and is still growing into his body, it’s a testament that everyone’s timeline is a little bit different.”
Heading into his last season, however, no one saw the type of numbers that Justin put up in the forecast.
“I’ll be honest, I thought he would have a great season, maybe 40 goals,” Dennis said. “I played with Corey Perry, and I think he’s a hall of famer and he had 47 in his last season in the OHL. Granted, Justin was an overager, but 61 goals are impressive and I don’t think anyone could have predicted that.”
Not to get Adam Dennis in trouble with his former teammates, but the 2005 Memorial Cup champ thinks Brazeau stacks up pretty well with some of the members of that team.
“He would have fit in pretty well on that London team, that’s for sure,” Dennis explained. “He is a creative guy and would have hung in pretty well. He’s a guy who is going to succeed wherever he goes, he has that mindset that leads to good things.”
As for coaching him, Dennis was pretty clear as to what that experience was like.
“It was lots of fun,” he said. “As a coach, you are always trying to learn too and Justin is a guy I definitely learned from. To be able to watch him in the game, to watch how he handled high pressure or failure in the game because that is important on how you deal with it.”
“With a lot of teenagers, it takes a little bit of time to reset the ticker and get back on the ice and try to compete,” Dennis added. “Justin turns over pretty quickly. If a powerplay isn’t successful, he’s back on the bench drawing up plays with his linemates, he’s not worried about who made the mistake and who didn’t, he’s just trying to find ways to make it better for the next time he is out there. To have that kind of mindset, there’s a lot of things possible.”
Those are sentiments echoed by Brazeau’s head coach in Newfoundland this past season, John Snowden.
“His numbers and his rookie performance speak for itself,” he explained. “He’s a pleasure to coach. I like to use the term ‘elite character’ and I think he’s one of those people who have elite character. Very coachable. He didn’t come in being a guy who scored 60 plus goals in the OHL last year with any ego thinking that he needed to be at the AHL or NHL level.”
“He understood his job was to get better and to fall in love with the process of getting better,” Snowden continued. “He did that. It was a pleasure, he got better every day. He found a way to continue to grow and adjust to the pro game and do what it takes for him to excel and better himself on and off the ice.”
Even though his time in the OHL is done, there is a lot of work to be done in order to reach the NHL, but there is a plan in place for Brazeau.
“They want to see me keep using my size and working on my skating ability,” Brazeau explained. “That’s been the biggest thing for me is my skating and I thought I got better with that this year with the more I played and the more adjusted I got to the league.”
The Toronto Maple Leafs have started to view the ECHL as an extra layer of development, much like the minor leagues in baseball have more than one-tier. That is something that Coach Snowden believes can be beneficial to Brazeau, who was overlooked in the draft.
“I think it gives him some more room to grow,” he explained. “Some teams focus more on the AHL, sometimes the ECHL has been more for sending a couple of players to develop. For the Leafs, this is the entry point of the program. Obviously, some players are different circumstances, they might start in the AHL or as a first-round pick right to the NHL.”
“Those late-round picks, the free agents, this is where you are going to come to develop,” Snowden continued. “You’ve got to embrace that and know that with the Leafs, just because you are here in Newfoundland, it doesn’t mean you’re thrown to the ECHL. You have the full development staff, everyone is watching, everybody is paying attention to what you do and your progress. Kyle Dubas and the Leafs have put full stock into doing it this way.”
As if to back-up Coach Snowden’s words, Kyle Dubas, who is the GM of the Leafs, did notice the season that was for Justin Brazeau, dating back to signing him in the spring of 2019.
“Justin signed with us following the completion of his great career with the Battalion and immediately bought into our development program,” Dubas explained. “He was one of a few players who voluntarily spent every day of the entire summer in Toronto training at our facility with our staff.”
Dubas may know a thing or two about development. His much-publicized story mirrors Brazeau’s, only on the off-ice side as he started as a stick boy with the Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds before working his way up to GM of the team and eventually the Leafs.
“His commitment to his development was apparent with the progress he showed with the Growlers this season and we are counting on him to be a major part of the Marlies next season and the Leafs in the future,” he added.
The last two seasons in North Bay saw Justin as part of the leadership core, wearing an “A” under Captain Riley Bruce, before becoming a Captain himself in his final season. Having those responsibilities, plus being the offensive catalyst for the team can make for a hard adjustment period when you enter a dressing room like Newfoundland as a rookie, especially as the team was the defending ECHL champions.
“You’ve got to understand that for all players who leave junior hockey and move on to pro hockey, you were the leader, you were the captain, the go-to guy, you have to accept who you are,” Snowden said. “We were a young team, we were a full year, or two and a half years younger than the rest of the league.”
“Getting players from junior, or college, it’s how are you willing and what are you willing to do as a player and to step back from what you are used to and take it all in and learn,” he added. “I think we have put in an environment and culture here that allows them to do that, but also empowering them to be who they are because you want these players to play with the same confidence. Everybody has an impact when it comes to the leadership part of a team throughout a season.”
“Your first couple of games, you’re trying to get adjusted and trying to get up to the pace of play,” Brazeau said. “I think once you get over that adjustment phase, it’s just hockey and you get back to your game and settle in.”
“We all know what he can do offensively,” Snowden chimed in. “He’s a very gifted player and he’s different. He’s 6’6”, he has gifted hands and can make plays in tight spaces and has the ability to extend plays down low because of his size and skillset with the puck. It’s his ability to now up his pace and his skating is something he knows we are going to work on and making plays at game speed.”
“With any player that starts in this league, it’s the details away from the puck,” he continued. “Offensively, where are you going to be beneficial, defensively where are you going to be? All those little things without the puck are so important. If you play a 60-minute game you might spend two and a half minutes with the puck on your stick and I might be stretching that.”
One advantage the Leafs may have on other teams is having former figure skating Olympian Barb Underhill as the team’s skating consultant. However, with playing in Newfoundland, the pair couldn’t always have on-ice sessions together.
“During the year it’s more about taking what you learned from the summer and trying to apply it to game-like situations,” Brazeau said. “It’s mostly summer work with her.”
For Brazeau, the veterans stepped in to help settle in the young guys, but he has one to thank for helping him settle in the way he did.
“Todd Skirving,” he said with a bit of a laugh. “We had a running joke on the team, we had three rookies and he called us his kids and we called him dad. He was really good to us when we got there and made us feel comfortable on and off the ice.”
The season even featured a cameo for Brazeau at the AHL level with the Marlies for one game. According to the former Battalion star, the experience was well worth it.
“Everybody is a little bit faster and system-wise, everyone is in the right place and right time a little more,” he explained. “Your time and space are taken away, but I felt the adjustment went well and at the end of the day it’s just hockey and you need to make your decisions quicker and once you get used to the speed, it’s fine.”
“I was pretty happy,” Brazeau said on finding out he was moving up to the AHL. “We had just played a game and I got called into the office and ‘Snowy’ told me. You have a bunch of things going through your head and you’re excited to get up there and play. It was definitely a great feeling.”
Even back on the home front in North Bay, Brazeau’s presence is still being felt. Brad Chenier, who was named captain prior to the last season, spent most of Justin’s 61 goal campaign on his line. After Chenier was traded, Luke Moncada took over with the “C” and has ties to Brazeau.
Moncada’s career in the OHL looks eerily similar to that of Justin’s as well. The Troops captain has seen his goal totals jump from nine and eight to 30 this past season.
“Your older guys are always an extension of your coaching staff,” Dennis said. “They stir the drink so to speak and you want your young guys to take notice of it. I really see it in Brad and Luke in the ways they approached their offensive tactics.”
“You see a lot of ‘Braz’ in a guy like Luke,” he continued. “The way he has been able to develop, there’s a lot of similarities there and in the way he is attacking this summer and finding creative ways to get better.”
“Both of them were very well suited for the job,” Brazeau said. “I talked to Brad a little bit more at the beginning of the year and at the deadline with everything that happened to him. I think they’re more friends than anything so when they talk to me, I try to help them out as best as I can.”
“They both have done a good job, and Luke will do an even better job next year,” he continued.
Nothing has ever come easy for Justin. As previously mentioned, he was a 13th round pick, 254th overall in the 2014 OHL priority selection. During his stint in the OHL, he was passed over by teams through the NHL draft, before finally securing the contract. Then at Leafs camp, he was demoted to the Growlers.
“It definitely wasn’t the best feeling right away,” he stated. “For myself, it’s always been the same attitude, wherever I play I am going to work my hardest and prove people wrong and that I belong at the next level. When they told me I was going down, they put a plan in place and they explained to me so my mindset was to go down and play my best and work my way up.”
“It’s definitely tough,” Brazeau added. “I think you can use that as motivation. If you have the belief and confidence in yourself that you can play at the next level, you can use that as motivation to prove people wrong and that you belong. It’s what I am going to keep doing moving forward, and keep pushing to get as high as I can.”