While many observers are caught up in the college free agent market right now, the prize among undrafted free agents hails from the junior ranks. Justin Brazeau, a 21-year-old winger from the OHL’s North Bay Battalion, is ready to be an impact pro player as soon as his season ends, which could be sooner rather than later.
The OHL regular season has ended and the playoffs are set to get underway, beginning on Thursday. Brazeau suited up in all 68 games for the Battalion this season, recording 61 goals and 113 points. The massive output by the North Bay captain was good enough for the league lead in goals and second in scoring behind only top Dallas Stars prospect Jason Robertson. Yet, it wasn’t enough to place the Battalion among the top teams in the league. North Bay finished seventh in the Eastern Conference and face a daunting match-up with Robertson and the Niagara Ice Dogs in the first round.
If Brazeau and the Battalion do indeed make an early exit – a sweep would end the series by the middle of next week – Brazeau could sign his entry-level contract by the end of the month. Of course, as a junior player he could sign an ELC at any time, but at this point Brazeau seems willing to wait until his final year of juniors is officially over. He has likely had conversations with many teams already, but seems poised to look at all options for the next step in his career.
Brazeau should be able to choose freely any team in the NHL he likes for his first contract. The overage forward is more than just numbers; while many before him have dominated the junior level offensively only to flame out at the pro level, those players tend to be smaller in stature and able to skate around their opposition at the junior level. Brazeau is a different type of player entirely. At 6’6″ and 225 lbs., Brazeau is a bona fide power forward. He has great skill and offensive instincts, but can hold his own defensively with great size and strength. In fact, maybe the only weakness that could prevent him from continuing to be a contributor in the NHL is his skating. If he can improve upon his ability to get back and forth, Brazeau can be dangerous in both ends.
The short answer is that all 31 teams have likely checked in on Brazeau. A junior player of both this size and production are few and far in between and all of the NHL is on alert that Brazeau could be a special player. At the cost of an entry-level contract, it would be silly for any team not to take a chance on the big scoring forward.
However, there are some leaders in the pursuit. Of course, the Toronto Maple Leafs are always a top contender. An Ontario native, Brazeau could have the opportunity to play on a top team close to home, while the Leafs are desperate for affordable help as they face an impending cap crunch and could afford to add some more size up front as well. Similarly, Brazeau could choose to play relatively nearby in Ottawa, as the Senators need all the help they can get and Brazeau could immediately take on a major role.
Brazeau also has some history with a pair of NHL teams. The undrafted product did spend time at development camp with both the San Jose Sharks and Columbus Blue Jackets over the past few years and may have maintained relationships with those clubs. Both the Sharks and the Blue Jackets are talented teams on which Brazeau could find immediate success.
However, San Jose and Columbus, as well as Toronto, are deep up front. Brazeau wants to play as soon as possible and may not get that chance this season with one of those three teams. The Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins are two top contenders who do have flexibility in the top-nine and could be willing to give Brazeau a shot right away. The New York Rangers aren’t at the same competitive level as those teams, but are shockingly thin at right wing and Brazeau could hypothetically play
Brazeau is going to sign an entry-level contract, so there is a limit on both base salary and potential bonuses, both of which he will likely max out. It will also be a three-year term, per the CBA. The key to signing the power forward will instead be who is willing or even able to burn the first year of the contract this season. Brazeau has shown that he has the size, skill, and competitive nature to play in the NHL and will want to prove that right away. The potential future star will also want to get another year closer to making real money. If a team can promise Brazeau play time this year, it will go a long way in locking him up. If such a landing spot doesn’t exist, he could opt for a team with which he can play the greatest role next season.