LOS ANGELES — Even though Los Angeles Kings right wing Dustin Brown is only 23 years old, he had already played three seasons in the National Hockey League going into the 2007-08 season. But during that time, his play raised plenty of questions and doubts about his future.
To be sure, Brown quickly established himself as a physical player, one who could deliver devastating body checks. But the offensive ability he showed at lower levels eluded him. Indeed, many doubted the first round (13th overall) selection in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft would ever meet the lofty expectations that the Kings and hockey pundits alike had of him.
Brown played sparingly in his rookie year, scoring a goal and adding four assists in the 2003-04 season. He played for the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League (Kings’ primary minor league affiliate) during the 2005-06 lockout season, and he gave everyone a glimpse of what could be by scoring 29 goals with 45 assists for 74 points.
It was back to the NHL and the Kings in the 2005-06 season, when Brown scored 14 goals and added 14 assists for 28 points with 175 hits. He improved his offensive numbers in the 2006-07 season with 17 goals and 29 assists for 46 points while ranking second in the league with 258 hits.
Despite his offensive improvement, it was clear that Brown was a fierce hitter, but was not a major offensive threat—a third line winger at best, not the first or second line power forward that he was expected to become. And since teams do not select players for their third and fourth lines in the first round of the draft, Brown was definitely not living up to expectations.
After three seasons in the NHL without making the offensive splash that was expected of him, Brown was at a crossroads in his career, as the whispers around the league were that he was likely to be little more than a third-line checking forward with average or even below average offensive skills. Brown clearly needed to put his entire game together in order to silence his critics.
And although the 2007-08 season was yet another horrific season for the Kings, Brown was a one of the few bright spots, scoring 33 goals while contributing 27 assists for 60 points, and he led the league with 311 hits. Without question, Brown finally put together his offensive game with his physical play.
To be sure, Brown silenced his critics with a breakout season.
Brown’s renaissance began during the off-season when he lost a few pounds and worked on his skating, adding speed and better conditioning to his game.
He also added increased confidence to his arsenal.
“This year, I’ve been focusing on picking up my offensive game and really focusing when I get those chances,” said Brown. “Last year, when I got those chances, maybe I didn’t have the confidence to score. That’s the difference–the experience and the confidence this year.”
“There’s definitely a different feeling for myself,” added Brown. “You come out onto the ice—I remember my first couple of years, questioning or doubting myself, whether I belong, or whether I can score. Now, I just go out there and expect to create offense for this team. I’ve been fortunate enough to get the opportunity and capitalize on my chances.”
“It’s definitely a different mindset for me now. It’s not whether I belong. It’s making a statement.”
Experience also helped him to continue to play a physical brand of hockey while adding the offense at the same time.
“Physicality is still there [in his game],” Brown explained earlier in the season. “But when I have to focus on offense, I’m not taking myself out of the play as much this year, which has helped me get my chances. I’m not worrying about making the huge hit and maybe taking myself out of position by three or four feet. In today’s game, three or four feet is a big difference. Letting the hits come to me, I can still get my hits, but I’m in better position defensively and offensively.”
“A lot of it is confidence and a lot of it is experience, knowing when to turn it up a notch,” added Brown. “Hitting is a weird thing. Sometimes, you can create big hits, but a lot of times, it’s just a matter of letting things come to you.”
This season, everyone stood up and took notice of the “new” player wearing Kings’ jersey number 23, including Kings’ head coach Marc Crawford.
“He’s at the point in his career where he is maybe a little more comfortable with the puck,” said Crawford. “When you’re young and you’re learning the league, when you get the puck on your stick, maybe you force plays or hurry plays a bit more. Dustin has a bit more poise now.”
“As a power forward, it’s about controlling the puck and making a quick decision, and I see a lot more control in his play,” added Crawford. “He’s always physical. He was physical as a young player in this league. He caught people by surprise, but he doesn’t catch anyone by surprise now.”
After a huge breakout season, the expectations for Brown are even higher, both on the ice and off, and that includes being looked at as one of the leaders on the team.
“Let’s face it. It’s going to be Brown in a situation of leadership, [and Anze] Kopitar,” said Crawford. “We’ve already introduced [Lubomir] Visnovsky and [Michael] Cammalleri into it this year. Those guys are going to have to continue to take steps ahead.”
“It’s taking initiative to be the accountable guys,” added Crawford.
And Brown was already talking like a team leader at the end of his team’s season as he lamented one of the reasons the Kings took it on the chin again this season.
“It’s players taking accountability and coming ready to play every night, which I don’t think was the case for every player in every game this year,” he said.
“I believe it’s just taking accountability—each individual,” he stressed. “There have been games this year where little things cost us games, not big mistakes. It’s not chipping the puck in, a turnover. It’s little things like that—short shifts and stuff like that—we got away from as a team in the early part of the year and it cost us games.”
Many have attributed to the Kings’ inconsistent effort throughout the season to the fact that their key players are all quite young. But Brown refused to accept that as an excuse.
“You could look at it two ways,” said Brown. “We’re a young team, but at the same time, if you’re young, you should be excited to play every night. I think there have been instances where there’s players who weren’t excited to play and kind of went through the motions.”
“You can’t do that,” added Brown. “You can’t have any passengers when we’re on the lower end of the talent level. We have to have everyone excited. We can’t rely only on our talent. We have to be hard-working. Hard work and doing the little things would really help this team.”
“Everyone has off nights,” Brown explained. “The effort level wasn’t there sometimes from a variety of players. I don’t think that’s really acceptable if we want to make the playoffs. There’s guys who are going to have off nights. Skill guys—[Alexander] Frolov might have an off night and not be the normal Frolov we all know he can be. One thing we can all do is bring our effort every night. Sometimes, that wasn’t the case.”
“It’s a team game, we’re all pulling on the same rope,” Brown elaborated. “You try to support your teammates. I’ve had off nights, or nights where I could’ve worked harder. You look back after the fact and you kick yourself.”
After such a banner year for himself, Brown was especially disappointed in his team’s atrocious season.
“It’s not a good feeling for myself,” he said. “It’s a big disappointment for me. Next year, it’s going to be up to the core guys to take accountability for this team and not let it slip away.”
Brown said that despite their poor season, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
“I think experience is a huge part of becoming a winning team,” said Brown. “When you look at our core group, we all got a year’s experience and I think that’s going to pay dividends.”
“It’s my first time in this organization where I’ve come back and there’s the same key players for two years in a row and now we’re coming back for a third year,” added Brown. “I think that’s a huge part of getting a winning mentality around here. The key guys—Kopitar, [Patrick O’Sullivan Frolov, Cammalleri], Jack [Johnson]—they’re all going to be here.”
“Normally, it’s a total [overhaul] after the season, at least since I’ve been here. It’s nice to know that we have that core group that’s been together for three years and we can really build on that.”
Brown will represent the United States, along with O’Sullivan, in the 2008 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship tournament, May 2-18, 2008 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Quebec City, Quebec.
After that, it’s back to same grindstone that he put his nose to last summer.
“A lot of the same, I’m not going to try to switch much of it up,” Brown said about his off-season training. “This is where you can make gains physically—in the summertime.”
“It’s tough during the year. If you work hard during the summer—I noticed the difference physically, feeling better on the ice, maybe not right away because you go from being in great shape off the ice to getting into hockey shape. But once you get into hockey shape, it can really help you.”
To be sure, the 2008-09 Kings are going to need all the help Dustin Brown can give them, and if he can improve on his offensive numbers, he can make a big statement towards gaining recognition as one of the league’s top power forwards. That kind of effort could be the difference between the Kings making the playoffs or being one of the league’s also-rans yet again.
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