Minnesota Duluth sophomore winger J.T. Brown, regarded as the top NHL free-agent prospect in Division I this season, gave up his final two years of eligibility Wednesday, signing a two-year, entry-level contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He’s expected to be in uniform sometime this week with the Lightning, who are at New Jersey today and home against Winnipeg on Saturday.
Brown, 21, of Burnsville, Minn., agreed to a contract worth $832,500 if playing in the NHL and $70,000 in the minor leagues, plus a $92,500 signing bonus each year. He will make about $5,000 per day the rest of the NHL regular season, which will count as the first year of his contract, but isn’t eligible for the league playoffs. The Lightning have six regular-season games remaining the next 10 days.
“It came down to having the right opportunity and the right fit with the right team,” Brown said from Chicago, where he had met with a handful of teams Wednesday. “This was not an easy decision to leave UMD, with all the success we’ve had, and all that I learned in two years from our coaching staff, and all of the great friendships I made.”
Brown, 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, led UMD in goal scoring this season with 24 and was third in total points with 47 in 39 games. He also led UMD in shots on goal, penalties and plus-minus. In two seasons, he had 40 goals and 44 assists for 84 points in 80 games.
Brown was an all-Western Collegiate Hockey Association first-team pick this season. He had two hat tricks, three goals in a win at Nebraska-Omaha and four in a win at Alaska Anchorage. He was named Most Outstanding Player of the 2011 NCAA Frozen Four in St. Paul as UMD won its first Division I title.
“He plays hard both ways, he’s aggressive, he has speed, moves the puck, has a scoring knack and is a clutch performer. He played his absolute best in the Frozen Four last year,” said Tampa Bay senior adviser to the general manager Tom Kurvers, a former UMD All-American defenseman, who watched the Bulldogs 14 times this season. “His competitiveness is so noticeable and he has a little evil streak, which he’s learned to control.
“He’s gotten better the last two years and his time in Duluth was well spent.
“We are absolutely thrilled to have signed J.T. He was the premier free agent in college hockey. (General manager) Steve Yzerman got a chance to watch him, and liked him, and we wanted to get J.T. on our team.”
His departure to the NHL is the fourth in two seasons by a UMD player with college eligibility remaining. A year ago the losses were sophomore defenseman Dylan Olsen (a Chicago Blackhawks first-round draft pick) leaving at mid-season, and freshman defenseman Justin Faulk (a Carolina Hurricanes second-round pick) and junior winger Mike Connolly (undrafted and signed by San Jose and now with Colorado) after the season.
The Bulldogs are 51-20-12 the past two years and were defeated by Boston College 4-0 in Sunday’s NCAA Northeast Regional title game in Worcester, Mass.
Brown, UMD’s rookie of the year last season with 37 points in 42 games, is the son of former Minnesota Vikings running back Ted Brown, who was a No. 1 NFL draft pick in 1979 and spent his entire eight-year career in Minnesota through 1986, rushing for 4,546 yards and 40 touchdowns, and making 339 pass receptions for 2,850 yards and 13 TDs. He has the fifth-most rushing TDs in team history and ranks sixth in career rushing yards.
At UMD, J.T. Brown wore No. 23, which his dad wore with the Vikings.
“J.T. is modest. He’s not the kind to brag. He’s not one to be in the spotlight,” Ted Brown, a juvenile probation officer for Ramsey County in St. Paul, told the News Tribune in 2010. “He’s heard so much about shortcomings, about not being big enough, and there were naysayers who wondered why an Afro-American would want to be playing hockey. But he didn’t bow to that, he worked harder and has improved. He’s shown he can pass the puck, he can play defense and he can score goals. He’s most happy when the team wins.”
Senior Travis Oleksuk centered Brown for much of the last two seasons and was second in scoring for the Bulldogs this season, and finished with 115 career points. Oleksuk was impressed by Brown’s ability to make things happen.
“He’s a shooter who is extremely fast on his skates,” Oleksuk said of Brown. “When he’s at his best, there aren’t a whole lot of players who can keep up.
“I like to give passes to someone who is moving, which opens the ice incredibly and puts opposing players on their heels. That’s when J.T. is at his best. He’s a shoot-first player and a scorer.”
Superior native P.K. O’Handley coached Brown for two seasons at Waterloo (Iowa) in the U.S. Hockey League and said Brown oozed with natural ability.
“Over time, he embraced his ability and began to play with an edge, with some bite,” O’Handley told the News Tribune in January. “It’s a great story. He’s been an offensive guy all of his life, and with that speed, he can fly. He looks effortless out there.”
Since 2007, 10 UMD players have left school early to sign professional contracts: left wingers Mason Raymond (with Vancouver in 2007), Rob Bordson (Anaheim in 2010) and Mike Connolly (San Jose in 2011), defensemen Matt Niskanen (Dallas in 2007), Jason Garrison (Florida in 2008), Evan Oberg (Vancouver in 2009), Dylan Olsen (Chicago in 2010) and Justin Faulk (Carolina in 2011) and goaltender Alex Stalock (San Jose in 2009).