TAMPA, Fla. — On March 25, J.T. Brown was in Worcester, Mass., playing for the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs in the NCAA tournament. Less than a week later, he was in Tampa, playing for the Lightning in the NHL.
Heck of a week for the highly sought-after prospect who spurned the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins, among others, to go to Tampa Bay.
“It was a lot of a change, actually. Just being in college last week and now being here, it’s a totally different change for me,” Brown said Monday. “Everything happened pretty fast, but I’m happy to be here.”
Brown on March 28 signed a two-year, entry-level contract worth $1.85 million plus incentives, but these five games for the Lightning will burn one of those years. The money is prorated for this season, but it gets the 21-year-old to free agency barriers quicker.
The forward who had 24 goals and 23 assists for UMD this season had another purpose in mind, too.
“It’s going to be a learning process for me coming in, so that’s what I kind of wanted to do is come in and be able to play and see what the pace of the game was, the speed,” Brown said. “Just get a little bit of a learning curve done now instead of the start of next year.”
Brown didn’t look at all out of place Saturday in his NHL debut, impressing coach Guy Boucher in the process.
“I don’t want to rave too much, because i know what happens when you start doing that and you get a nice page in the newspaper and the game after that he’s awful,” Boucher said. “I want to keep it at the level that it really is. It’s a first game, it’s tough for the player, it’s emotional, it’s nerve-racking. So to see a player come out and play that well in his first NHL game is great, but we all know that it’s the games after that that comes back to normalcy.”
Tampa Bay’s coach said he wanted Brown to continue making “errors of commission” to see mistakes and growth. Living at a hotel has been the off-ice adjustment for Brown, but on the ice he said the biggest difference was the speed.
It helped that he skated on a line with Vinny Lecavalier and Ryan Malone and will likely continue there Monday against the Washington Capitals and beyond. It’s a test for Brown to see where he could fit in for the Lightning in the future.
“The whole idea was for him to get those five games, to get some ice time and to get him play, to see where he is,” Boucher said. “It’s not that you make a decision for next year, but it gives you an idea for next year, definitely.”
That Brown was able to step in right away and not look like a rookie is impressive enough. But with Tampa Bay out of playoff contention, there’s no sense in leaning on the kid for too much right away.
“I’m sure that he’ll continue to do some good things, but at the same time we’re not going to start pushing too much pressure on a kid coming in to be what we would like him to be,” Boucher said. “It’s important that we feel that he’s done well, but it’s also important that we keep things in perspective and let him grow the way he’s supposed to grow.”