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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

TJ Brodie's Rapid Rise to Becoming One of the NHL's Most Dynamic Defencemen

I would love to know how many miles TJ Brodie skates in a game.

Frequently racing up ice to join the rush, often leading that rush, he may be a defenceman by trade -- and a solid defender at that -- but it's his explosive two-way game that has turned him into one of the most exciting blueliners in the NHL.

“My dad was my coach growing up in minor hockey and he would never let me play forward,” chuckled the 25-year-old recently in a one-on-one interview. “So my only way to play forward was to jump up into the play. I guess it worked out.”

No kidding.

While it's Hartley's system that not only allows but encourages Brodie to activate all the time, it's Brodie's underrated skill-set -- tremendous speed, smart instincts, smooth puck-handler -- that has enabled him to thrive in that environment.

"Three-on-three down low, team systems are so good now that unless there's a mistake, you're not going to generate anything," said Hartley. "You need that fourth man to create confusion, to come in from the wide side using a little delay play. That's why those guys are so good. You look at Brod's first goal, his speed and hockey sense allows us to do this."


Back to the Beginning

During my chat with Thomas James, better known as TJ, he reflected on his pro career to date and how he went from being a guy that was on the bubble when it came to being drafted to one of the NHL's rising stars.

Picture courtesy of the Saginaw Spirit
Don't let the fact he's third on the Flames blue-line payroll fool you, just 20 games into a five-year/$23.3 million contract extension, he has already established himself as arguably the best of the bunch.

The draft year for the native of Chatham, Ontario was 2008. When NHL Central Scouting released its midterm rankings, Brodie was No. 164 among North American skaters. In the final rankings, he climbed 10 spots to No. 154 but that still came with no assurances he would hear his name called given 211 players were to be selected and North American goalies as well as international skaters and goalies all had to be factored into the mix.

“I didn't even know if I was going to get picked," said Brodie, who played for the OHL's Saginaw Spirit. "My agent suggested that since the draft was happening close to home (in Ottawa), that we go down. He said it's a good experience to be there whether you're drafted or not. Luckily I did.”

At the stubborn insistence of former Flames director of amateur scouting Mike Sands, Calgary general manager Darryl Sutter selected Brodie in the fourth round, 114th overall.

“It was exciting being drafted but at the same time, I knew that there's lot of guys that get drafted every year that never end up playing and there are guys that don't get drafted that end up making it. I knew that just because I was drafted, it didn't really mean anything, it was just an opportunity and I had to keep working to get better.”

Unique about that particular draft class was how rich it was for defencemen. It's generally regarded as the deepest draft ever for that position.

The next four picks after Steven Stamkos went first overall, all patrol the blue-line -- Drew Doughty, Zach Bogosian, Alex Pietrangelo and Luke Schenn. Brodie saw plenty of the first three as they also played in the OHL.

“They were always great players. Those are the guys we would watch on video and those were the guys that were always on Team Canada at the World Juniors. You always knew that they were going to be good.”


Memorial Cup Chase Comes Up Short

Brodie's offensive statistics kept improving over his four seasons with Saginaw.
  • 2006-07 - 4 pts in 20 gm (0.20 PPG)
  • 2007-08 - 30 pts in 68 gm (0.44 PPG)
  • 2008-09 - 50 pts in 63 gm (0.79 PPG)
  • 2009-10 - 23 pts in 19 gm (1.21 PPG)

It was during his fourth season that he was acquired by the Barrie Colts, who were loading up for a Memorial Cup chase.

Going to a deeper team, which had also acquired Pietrangelo in a trade, the ice time came down slightly and so did the points per game with 33 pts in 46 games (0.72 PPG) but what Brodie got out of it was an extended playoff run.

Partnered on the blue-line with Dalton Prout, who now toils in the NHL for Columbus, the Colts rolled through their first three playoff series losing only one game before being whipped in four straight games by Taylor Hall, Adam Henrique, Greg Nemisz and the Windsor Spitfires in the league final.

“That experience was big for me," said Brodie. "That's the furthest I made it in the playoffs in junior. The guys on that team, it was a deep team. Just being able to play with those guys at that time was great, although it definitely wasn't the way we wanted to end it.”


His First NHL Cup of Coffee

Brodie's first taste of the NHL came quicker than he thought. Much quicker.

Thanks to a strong training camp in 2010-11 in which he scored four goals to help Calgary go a perfect 7-0-0 in the preseason, the 20-year-old made the Flames season-opening roster. Still wearing his training camp number, he dressed for their first three games wearing jersey No. 66.

After partnering with Adam Pardy for the first two games, he ended up alongside veteran Steve Staios in game three. But it was not a great night for the two of them. In a 3-0 home-ice loss to Florida, Staios was a minus-3 and Brodie was a minus-2. With veteran Cory Sarich on the roster and available, Calgary sent Brodie down to the club's AHL affiliate in Abbotsford on what would turn out to be a one-way ticket as he remained there the rest of the season.

“I didn't expect to get a sniff going into camp so being able to play even those three games was exciting. It helped me out a lot,” recalled Brodie. “Just getting a taste of it and seeing how much better I had to be if I wanted to stick and have a job.”


Learning at the AHL Level

Brodie's first and only full season in the AHL was a good one. He finished second on the team in scoring with 34 points (5 goals, 29 assists) and represented the Heat at the AHL all-star game.

“It's never fun going down but I think it made me a lot better player," said Brodie. "Going down and getting the ice time, getting put in all situations, giving me a chance to work on the defensive side that I never really was taught in junior and growing up."

The area of his game Brodie admitted he needed to strengthen was that defensive side. He acknowledged that it wasn't until he left junior that he fully appreciated that aspect of it.

“Sometimes when you look at the game sheet at the end of the night and guys have points, you think they've played a great game. It wasn't until I turned pro that I realized it doesn't matter how many points you have, you have to be strong in all three zones,” Brodie said. “Eventually, there's going to be a stretch where you're not putting up the points and you have to contribute in a different way and that's defensively. If you can't score then you have to defend and make sure the other team doesn't score when you're on the ice.”

Brodie opened up the 2011-12 season in Abbotsford but was recalled in November and spent the rest of the season in Calgary playing 54 games and picking up 14 points (2 goals, 12 assists).

Then came the NHL lock-out so back to the AHL went Brodie for some more seasoning.

Feeling more comfortable in his own end at that point, he used that final stint to get back to the same dynamic playing style that has become his staple. He put up 20 points (1 goal, 19 assists) in 35 games before being recalled as soon as the work stoppage was over.

“My first year down there, I really concentrated on the defensive side. I didn't jump up into the play too much," Brodie said. "But once I learned how to play in my own end, I got back to jumping up into the play offensively like I did in junior but at the same time, play smart defensively."


The Ascent Begins

It was a dubious start to the lockout-shortened 2013 NHL season for Brodie as he watched the season opener from the press box with Derek Smith drawing into the line-up and and playing on the third pairing with Sarich.  The Flames top four were Jay Bouwmeester and Mark Giordano, and Dennis Wideman and Chris Butler.

“You never want to be a healthy scratch. It's definitely something that makes you want to work that much harder to get back in the line-up and prove that you should be in the line-up,” said Brodie, who sat out just that one game and has been a fixture ever since.

Brodie's arrival on the big stage came when Bouwmeester was traded to the St. Louis Blues at the April 1 trade deadline. That left a huge void in terms of ice time and responsibility and Brodie took full advantage of both.

Thriving on his increased workload -- an average time-on-ice of 23:25 during his 15 games in April -- and playing in all situations, Brodie had six points (1 goal, 5 assists) over the final 10 games, which was tied for second on the team. Just like that, he had entrenched himself as one of the club's go-to blue-liners and it has remained that way ever since,

“Confidence is a big thing. When you get more ice time, if you play well, you can build off that and the more confidence you have, the more plays you're going to try to make and the more impact you're going to have. It's amazing how much confidence has to do with it.”

To start the 2013-14 season, Brodie partnered up with Giordano and they have formed one of the NHL's top duos ever since.

“That's definitely helped me. Gio is similar as far as jumping up, he always wants to create offence," says Brodie. "He's been a very easy guy to play with and a great guy to look to as an example because he does everything. He hits, blocks shots, he plays smart defensively, he jumps up in the play. I've definitely taken a lot of things away from playing with him that are things that have helped me become a better player.”


TJ's Final Word

Asked what has been the single most important part of his development as a hockey player, Brodie says it's all about getting ice time. He says that's vital when you're a young player and it's how you get better.

“It's been baby steps the whole way but the biggest thing for me no matter where I was, I was always getting ice time," he says. "Going back to my first year after being drafted into the OHL. I played junior B, which was an affiliate for the OHL. That gave me a chance to get the ice time and experience."

That theme remained consistent.

“Same thing my first year of pro. Playing back in the A gave me a chance to get the ice time. Those things are big in development. If guys aren't playing, it's tough to get better. You have to be on the ice."

He's certainly on the ice plenty now. In fact, he barely seems to leave it most nights. Playing in the best hockey league in the world, he's averaging 24:44 per game to lead the team. That ranks 11th in the NHL.

As for his importance to this hockey club, so often you don't know how valuable someone is until they're not there. Calgary was 2-7-0 without Brodie when he missed the start of the season with a broken hand. Since he's returned, the team has started to turn things around having gone 5-5-1.

If No. 7 can stay healthy the rest of the way, the Flames playoff hopes are still very much alive. Yes folks, he's that good.



By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.

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    2 comments:

    1. Love this player and would not be surprised if he represents Canada over Gio

      ReplyDelete
    2. Our best defenceman and he's just hitting his prime... What a steal of a signing at 4.5 for the next five seasons.

      ReplyDelete