The Oilers’ Connor Brown conundrum

EDMONTON, CANADA - OCTOBER 14: Connor Brown #28 of the Edmonton Oilers skates against the Vancouver Canucks during the first period at Rogers Place on October 14, 2023 in Edmonton, Canada. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)
EDMONTON, CANADA - OCTOBER 14: Connor Brown #28 of the Edmonton Oilers skates against the Vancouver Canucks during the first period at Rogers Place on October 14, 2023 in Edmonton, Canada. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images) /

Connor Brown has so far not been anywhere near what the Oilers hoped he would be, and now there is a decision looming which complicates the situation.

With no points through six games from Connor Brown, this is not what the Edmonton Oilers signed up for. So much more was expected from their key offensive offseason acquisition.

Yes, Brown has always been more of a complimentary top-six player as opposed to a leading one. In any event, the early returns have been extremely underwhelming, including a -4 plus/minus rating which is tied-fourth worst on the team.

In fairness to the 29-year-old, he is just one of numerous players not performing up to expectations so far in 2023-24. With a record of 1-4-1, this is the Oilers’ worst start to a season since the 2014-15 campaign. (At least this put them in position to subsequently win the rights to draft Connor McDavid.)

One of the ongoing narratives in the face of the poor start, is that it’s still early. The general consensus is the Oilers will overcome this adversity and still eventually qualify for the playoffs. (There’s something unnerving about this bravado.)

Pending bonus

The rationale that it’s still early, is an opinion which is open to debate. Regardless, you cannot use this argument when it comes to Brown, at least in respect of one specific aspect; namely, his contract.

When the winger signed his one-year deal with the Oilers, his base salary was only $775,000 against this season’s cap. The rest of it focused on a performance-based bonus, worth $3.225 million.

What’s significant about this bonus, is that it becomes activated once Brown reaches 10 games for the Oilers. In other words, he is just four games way from the Oilers having to cough up.

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The issue with this is that when it happens, the bonus will count towards next season’s salary cap. As this season’s tenuous cap situation shows for the Oilers, every penny counts.

Critics would argue it was a bad decision to offer such an incentive to a player who only appeared in four NHL games last season. (And say it quietly, but he was also pointless in those four contests.) He suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury in the fourth game, which resulted in season-ending surgery.

Now it makes sense to suggest the former Toronto Maple Leaf is still working his way back from his injury and attempting to play himself into form. While he did score three point versus the Flames, it’s not the same when it’s a preseason game versus an under-strength opponent.

Is Brown worth the gamble?

The question is, will Brown return to the form which previously made him a fine two-way player? Or are last season’s injury and his age contributing towards a gradual decline in his ability to perform effectively on the ice?

This is why the Oilers are in a potential quandary about what to do regarding the contract bonus. The truth is, save for an unlikely points explosion in these next three games, they will still be no closer to having their answer.

In a way — at least from Brown’s perspective — his position is strengthened, just based on the injury to McDavid. As a result, it’s a case of all hands on deck for a short-handed team which needs all the experienced personnel they can muster, given their current woes on the ice.

In fairness, from listening to Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft, it certainly doesn’t sound like Brown is going anywhere. Speaking to the media earlier in the week after practice, Woodcroft said:

"“When you come off the injury that he came off, this is not A-typical. It usually takes you a little while to get up and running and feel like you’re normal self, to have the game slow down for you a little bit, after you’ve missed 11 months or so. One of the things the coaching staff did with him right off the bat, was message to him that we’re going to be patient, we’re willing to be patient. We’re patient with him and his game and production and all that kind of stuff, but the most important thing is for him to be patient with himself. It doesn’t have to all happen right away and there’s different ways to help a team win, as you’re going through that process.”"

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As the saying goes, patience is a virtue, but in some respects the Oilers really have no choice with Brown. Regardless, if he can’t return close to the form which previously helped him succeed in the NHL, his bonus will sure seem like a waste of money.