J.T. Brown used to make the most impact on the ice by stuffing the net with goals. That’s what he did before he broke into the NHL.
But now Brown is known more for what he does without the puck, since he’s a sparkplug winger who hounds defenses through tenacious checking. This role has kept him in the league.
It also allowed the native Minnesotan to shift his career back home after the Wild signed him to a two-year, $1.375 contract Sunday when the free-agent signing period opened.
“Let’s be real,” said Brown, who played for Tampa Bay and Anaheim last season. “Not everybody can be a superstar. There’s only so many to go around. Most importantly is I wanted to play in this league. I made sure that I did what I had to, in the situations that I was in, to make sure I stayed here.”
Brown, the son of former Vikings running back Ted Brown, was born in Burnsville three years after his father’s eight-year NFL career ended. He had 32 goals as a senior at Rosemount High School before joining Waterloo of the U.S. Hockey League and scoring 50 goals in two seasons.
He then racked up 37 points in 42 games as a freshman at Minnesota Duluth and was the Frozen Four’s Most Outstanding Player after helping the Bulldogs win the NCAA title in 2011 at Xcel Energy Center with an overtime victory against Michigan. As a sophomore, he posted 24 goals and 47 points in 39 games.
He was a prized college free agent, signing with the Lightning after two seasons in Duluth. Brown scored 10 goals in his first season in the minors in 2013-14, but then his production began to wane.
“The scoring did not stick with him,” said Tom Kurvers, the Wild’s new assistant general manager who was previously a senior adviser to Tampa’s GM. “So he adjusted.”
Combining speed, anticipation and what Kurvers dubs “hockey courage,” Brown used his energy to make life for the opponent a challenge. He carved out a niche with the Lightning, earning semi-steady minutes until he became a regular in 2015-16.
In 309 NHL games, he has only 20 goals.
“He made himself useful as a puck-pursuing, sort of antagonizing, gritty forward who has hockey sense,” Kurvers said, “and he gets under the skin of defensemen and they’re aware of him.”
One example of that came during the Lightning’s run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, when Brown pressured the Blackhawks’ smooth-skating Duncan Keith, a puck retrieval expert.
“Duncan Keith was dealing with him in the Stanley Cup Finals, and he had respect for [Brown] after the series was done because J.T. did his job and made it difficult for [Keith] to go back and do his thing,” Kurvers recalled.
The Wild already had Brown on its radar before Kurvers joined the front office last month. It wanted to boost its depth with more spunk, and that’s exactly what Kurvers believes the team will get from Brown — who’s excited to return home, even if he may not be currently prepared for the cold.
“I was joking around that I don’t own a winter jacket anymore,” he said. “That will have to be one of the first purchases.”
Now settled in Edina, Brown also hopes to make his presence felt in the community.
Last season, the 28-year-old slipped into the spotlight for being the first and only NHL player to raise his fist during the national anthem to protest social injustice, racial inequality and police brutality like some NFLers were doing around that time.
Brown did the demonstration once and then announced he wouldn’t do it again but planned to get involved in the community, which he did — forging a bond with the Tampa Police Department.
“I try to give back as much as I can whenever the opportunities arise,” Brown said. “I guess my parents did a good job, and that’s something that’s very important to me.”
Aside from dealing with that attention, Brown — Joshua Thomas is his given name — switched teams for the first time in his career, getting picked up by the Ducks after he was placed on waivers by the Lightning in January.
He’s now on his third team in less than a year, but Brown “couldn’t be happier” to be with the Wild.
And while his responsibilities are clear, he and the team are optimistic he’ll be able to uncork the scoring ability that previously defined his playing days in Minnesota.
“I feel like there’s definitely an offensive side that can be brought out,” Brown said. “I’m looking forward to doing that here.”