By Bill Whitehead
SUNRISE — It took all of one period of play on Saturday night — though really it was just a shift or two — for one of my colleagues to make a spot-on assessment of new Florida defenseman T.J. Brennan. He had seen, he said, more jump, promise and good play out of Brennan in 20 minutes than he had in Keaton Ellerby’s entire tenure with the Panthers.
That’s not a complete slam on Ellerby, but it’s a good start. While he was another good guy in the room, Ellerby came up short on the ice. If size were the greatest attribute in being a successful NHL defenseman, Ellerby would have been a top pairing blueliner. But he wasn’t. He never quite fulfilled the potential as a first-round selection should, and there was no sign that was going to change. The 10th overall pick in the 2007 draft, Ellerby wasn’t terrible enough to heap blame upon, but he also never excited anyone or took advantage of the opportunities presented his way.
So GM Dale Tallon decided to shed what wasn’t working and bring in someone whom coach Kevin Dineen had achieved success with in the past. Some credit also goes to assistant GM Mike Santos, who said he’s been after Brennan for a year.
Florida acquired Brennan from Buffalo on Friday for a fifth-round pick, the one obtained from Los Angeles in the Ellerby trade. Essentially, the deal is Ellerby for Brennan, who was selected by the Sabres in the same draft as Ellerby, only in the 2nd round (31st overall). The Willingboro, N.J., native apparently didn’t fit into the plans of Buffalo and GM Darcy Regier, who’s overseeing a well-paid team that’s a prolific mess right now.
I mean, really, who would want a 6-foot-1, 213-pound puck-moving defenseman with a big shot and offensive upside who jumps up into the play and can score, as evident by the 16 goals and 30 points he scored in 52 games for Rochester last year? Or the 15 markers he put up in 2010-2011 while playing in his second season at Portland in the AHL for Dineen?
The media may have been surprised by Brennan’s play, especially if compared to Ellerby’s efforts or the defense as a whole this season, but Dineen didn’t get all teenage-girl gushy over Brennan — despite him putting a shot on net and cleaning up a loose puck a few seconds later to begin Florida’s three-goal rally, posting four shots, recording 23:42 of ice time, showing strong play and an extraordinary sense of belonging and blending in with his new teammates, especially on the power play.
“That’s my expectations of him as a player and that’s the level he’s set. That’s what we’ll expect until our season ends,” Dineen said, plainly.
This isn’t a make-or-break deal for the Panthers right now and was merely a blip on the NHL news scene Friday. And it will have little effect on this season. But next year, maybe two seasons from now the question might be, “What did the Cats give again for Brennan?” At first, you’ll want to quote the deal as it read Friday and say, “A fifth-round pick,” but then you’ll catch yourself, connect the dots and sigh, “Keaton Ellerby.”
The tell-tale sign this is a good trade? Most Buffalo fans on Twitter and on stories’ comments sections think it’s a horrible trade. They absolutely hate it, viewing it as a gift to the Panthers. That’s encouraging enough right now in this monumentally dismal season.
Here’s Brennan talking about his debut in Florida’s 4-3 loss to the Islanders:
And Brennan here leveling Ryan Hamilton while playing for Rochester:
T.J. Brennan. It stands for Terrance James, but Florida fans will have plenty of time to commit that to memory because Brennan’s a keeper and here to stay.