“From Vanek, to Gragnani....on to the corner to Roy....Roy looks back to Gragnani....Gragnani tried to pass it back to Roy...back in front...they scoreeeeeeeee” - Rick Jeanneret
“Is there a bigger thrill than scoring your first NHL goal in your first NHL game?” - Harry Neale
Granted, it was a little bit of a lucky bounce. The puck deflected off a Boston Bruins player's skate right onto the stick of Buffalo Sabres' defenseman T.J. Brennan. He reacted without thinking, flipping it past the defending Vezina Trophy and Conn Smythe trophy winning goaltender Tim Thomas. If he had taken a half second to consider the situation, he probably would have sent the puck 20 rows into the stands.
Seriously, you couldn't have drawn it up any better.
In fact, Brennan's ascension to the NHL happened just the way any second-round pick would hope. After being selected by the Sabres in 2007, he put in two strong seasons in the American Hockey League. In 2010-11, the offensive-minded defenseman took a major step forward in his second year by scoring 39 points in 72 games. Then early in his third minor league season, he made his NHL debut.
Just that easy.
But the Willingboro, N.J. native soon found out how few things are in your control as a professional athlete. The Sabres hit the skids. Some players got healthy and he bounced back and forth between Buffalo and Rochester throughout January, then was sent down until the final three games of the Sabres' season.
Brennan finished the year with one goal in 11 NHL games and 16 goals in 52 AHL games.
“I got a taste up there and that's great,” the Rochester Americans' defenseman said after practice, while standing in a tiny hallway inside the Sports Centre at MCC. “But you have to recognize what your are doing well and give yourself a pat on the shoulder then keep working.”
Despite another solid season in the AHL and playing in the NHL, Brennan found himself lower on the depth chart heading into 2012-13. During the off-season, the Sabres re-signed Alexander Sulzer and received defenseman Adam Pardy in a trade that sent Derek Roy to the Dallas Stars. Sulzer and Pardy, who are both on NHL contracts, made for eight total NHL D-men on the roster.
As a restricted free agent after 2011-12, Brennan had very few options other than to fight for a spot.
“That's a weakness in the CBA for the players, that the Group Two status gives you very little rights,” said Brennan's agent Allain Roy, who is president and CEO of CMG Sports “He was, like every other player in that situation, pretty much stuck with your team unless they move your rights.”
Down on the farm, Brayden McNabb and Mark Pysyk made things even more crowded. McNabb had impressed the Sabres' brass during his limited NHL time and Pysyk was a highly-skilled first-round pick.
In one off-season, he went from the first call up to possibly the 11th defenseman in the organization...
“How can you show them you belong?”
Brennan thinks about the question. Every question, really. He strikes you as honest and detailed in his answers, giving one the idea he isn't delusional about where he stands, as some are. He knows that not only is this year the year he has to prove to the Sabres he can play with the big club, but with the NHL locked out and plenty of the top young NHL talent playing in the AHL, this is his best opportunity to do so.
“This year the league has been really good,” he said. “It's helped me focus more and have more confidence knowing I can play against better skill at higher levels and do well against them.”
And he is doing well against them. With them, too. Brennan has become the anchor of a nearly unstoppable power play that includes would-be NHL'ers center Cody Hodgson and winger Marcus Foligno. Brennan has four goals and six assists and is among the AHL's leaders in scoring. He has now become the focus of opposing teams' penalty kills.
“He's got a bomb shot,” Hodgson said with a laugh.
Indeed, he does. An NHL-caliber shot, scouts say. But he said that an NHL shot alone isn't going to make him an every-night starter at the highest level.
“I think it's the consistency,” Brennan said. “For the coaches, they need to know who they are going to get when they play. My first couple years in the league, I was just an offensive defenseman and there would be times I'd wonder why I wasn't in the lineup. It was because I would have a great game, then the next game be the worst player on the ice.”
There have been some shades of inconsistency, still. In his first three games of the year, he only shot the puck three times. Since, he's taken 24 shots in the last five games. After his first goal of the season, coach Ron Rolston said, “He just needs to shoot the puck instead of trying to make the perfect play.”
“Even if it doesn't get on net, at least somebody blocking the shot finds out they won't want to block it again,” he said.
“If he plays with confidence, he'll be a successful player” - Roy
Brennan blames himself for only scoring one goal and only playing 11 games in the NHL so far in his career. It probably has a lot to do with circumstances – the amount of games, who he played with, total ice time, power play time etc. but to a pro athlete, those are just excuses. The Amerks' D-man motivates himself by being self-critical.
“After a few games, I said, 'yeah, I can play here,'” Brennan said. “But where I went wrong was not staying on that track of making progress. I kind of got a little complacent. Coming in this year it was about keeping up my confidence and progressing every day.”
“He played a little bit of a safer game, and was on a shorter leash offensively, but I was impressed with how he played,” Roy said of his client. “But when you are a young player, you are worried about making a mistake then not seeing the ice again. That was a little bit of how he played. He played safe.”
For now, there's no NHL. Oddly enough, the lockout can be good for AHL players like Brennan. They don't need to worry about whether they will be called up, only about winning and improving.
And once the NHL returns, so will the anxiety that comes along with chasing a dream. Until then, all Brennan can do is keep shooting. The rest is out of his control.