September 16 2014 09:40AM
It was the 2008 rookie tournament in Camrose when T.J. Brodie first caught my attention.
The team’s fourth-round pick that year quickly flashed his puck-handling skills and his smooth skating ability while playing mostly beside big, lumbering blueliner Matt Pelech.
He made his share of mistakes, as kids
with that kind of natural talent tend to do. He was caught too far up
the ice on occasion, and got a little cute with the puck at times
when he should have just made the safe play, flipped it off the glass
and out. But you could see the raw potential.
By the time the Young Stars Tournament moved to Penticton two years later, a member of the Flames organization somewhat quietly pointed to the Chicago Blackhawks’ Duncan Keith — who happened to win a gold medal with Team Canada at the Vancouver Winter Games, a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks, and the James Morris Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s best defenceman that previous season — as an example of the ceiling for the then-20-year-old Brodie.
Like the few others who heard it at the time, I brushed it off as a little extreme. Thought it was probably just a little hyperbole intended to get people excited about a mid-round pick. I can’t even recall now who said it. The notes are long-shredded and the only example of it I can find online is buried an old article by my former Calgary Sun partner Randy Sportak.
Keith was 27 in 2010, in his prime as an all-around defenceman. Brodie is 24 now. He has one full 82-game NHL season on his resume and another lockout-shortened year. The numbers are nice. The sample size is small.
But if things keep progressing the way they have so far, Brodie may just touch that ceiling in another few years. He made NHL.com correspondent Matt Sitkoff’s sleeper fantasy list for this coming season, and others will likely follow suit.
There are definitely differences between Keith and Brodie and their paths to the NHL. But there are also striking similarities.
They’re both 6-foot-1. Brodie is a little lighter but gaining muscle mass and strength with each off-season of training. They each boast above-average skating abilities and seem to slow the game down when they carry the puck up the ice. Confidently.
Brodie has work to do to be mentioned in the Norris conversation, a place his blueline partner Mark Giordano is currently more deserving of, but the professional progression Brodie has displayed sure reminds me of the way Keith rose to greatness.
Especially last season — Brodie’s big breakout. And with Keith earning his second Norris nod this past spring, coinciding with Brodie’s blip on the league radar, don’t be surprised if more people in and out of town start making the Keith comparison that the now faceless Flames insider boldly predicted four years ago.
After spending a couple of years in the American Hockey League, the second spurred on by the season lost to lockout, Keith was 22 when he played his first full slate in the NHL in 2005-06. Because of the recent lockout, Brodie only got a half season in at the same age as Keith.
The pro-rated numbers from Brodie’s two-goal, 14-point season in 47 games in 2012-13 put him around the 25-point mark over a full schedule. Keith posted 21 (nine goals, 12 assists) in his first NHL campaign.
Keith went on to score two goals and 29 assists for 31 points in his second season. Brodie netted nearly identical numbers with four goals and 31 points last year.
Where Brodie goes from here is a bit of a guessing game.
Keith improved quickly, as did his Blackhawks team, which was rebuilding during his first three seasons.
He’s become a perennial 40-point blueliner. a strong defender, and has twice cracked 60 points from the back end — his Norris seasons of 2010 and 2014.
With more time expected to come for Brodie on the powerplay this season, it’s safe to assume he’ll be in the high 30s or get into the 40s for points on the year. Where he may already be ahead of Keith is the possession game. His relative Corsi last year was second best on the team behind Giordano. Keith has never been top three on his team as far back as the stat is tracked on BehindTheNet.ca.
Brodie’s growing pains appear to be behind him. Despite a stellar pre-season in 2010, he was sent to the AHL because he wasn’t mature enough as a hockey player to make consistently smart decisions — which are even more important for a defenceman.
He grew up quickly under Abbotsford Heat head coach Jim Playfair, a fiery teacher who had previously groomed Giordano with great success. Keith learned under an equally intense AHL bench boss in Trent Yawney.
Playfair’s tough love approach during the 2010-11 season helped Brodie become an AHL all-star.
“That was another adjustment I had to make,” Brodie told me at the Flames summer development camp in 2011. “He’s the type of coach who likes to raise his voice and get his point across that way. It takes a while to understand how to take that from sort of a negative to a positive.”
Brodie managed to do exactly that, and continues to take steps toward NHL stardom.
A Norris trophy may not be in his future. Only 25 different defencemen have taken home that hardware since 1954. Some of the best blueliners in the game have yet to win it. But it’s a good bet that Brodie will soon be off the fantasy sleeper lists and climbing into a more flattering category.