LOS ANGELES — On June 17, the Los Angeles Kings made official what had been mostly a foregone conclusion for a few weeks…that right wing Dustin Brown was captain no more.
Indeed, the Kings announced a changing of the guard, with center Anze Kopitar being named their new captain.
Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi told the media during a conference call that the reasons for the change were two-fold. But he stressed that the primary reason was that it’s time to expand the horizons of other players and allow them further growth.
“There’s a number of things that go into this,” said Lombardi. “Number one, being a captain, there’s no doubt that you’re not only responsible for your own game, but 23 other players. That is an enormous responsibility. That’s an enormous amount of work to be responsible for twenty people. The second part of this—you know how I feel about culture and chemistry and the things that don’t necessarily show up on a chart, or anything of that nature. My feeling on this is that, at some point, there has to be an evolution in the growth of some of your other players, the players who have come through the system. It’s essentially their turn.”
“It’s players such as Kopitar, [Drew] Doughty, [Jonathan] Quick, [Jake] Muzzin,” added Lombardi. “All these players, we brought along in an environment that would help them becomes winners, in the sense of their own play, but also become winners, in the sense of being leaders. That is something that I think takes a lot of time to nourish and having the right people around them.”
“This is something that was on the board, a transition that needs to take place and they’ve been groomed for this, as players, and as leaders. Now it’s their time.”
Brown went through a similar process before he was named captain in 2008.
“If you look back at when Dustin took over, it was a very bad team,” Lombardi noted. “We essentially had only three young players at that time, with [Alexander] Frolov, [Mike] Cammalleri, and Dustin. We selected Dustin to be the captain of this team, but part of that process was to bring in guys who were leaders in their own right, whether it was Justin Williams, Mike Richards, Jarret Stoll, or the [Rob] Scuderi’s of the world. But all during that process, when you look at the extremely young players, the 19-year-olds coming through—they needed to take this all in because someday, it was going to be their job. But I don’t think this is something you just hand to a young player who’s just 21 or 22 [years old], who’s still formulating his own game, still formulating the idea of what it takes to lead. They have to take in every bit, and [now], it’s been going on for seven or eight years. Now it’s their turn. It’s their turn to assume this responsibility.”
“Dustin did a tremendous job,” Lombardi added. “If these guys, having learned from him and other players, can do half the job that he did, they’ll get one Cup. But again, I think they’re ready for it. I don’t think they were ready for it two or three years ago. But now is their time. Part of that is the transition in Dustin’s job. He was able to lean on Williams and those guys as he learned the process. He can be an enormous help to these players as they work through all the issues that comes with being a captain.”
The captaincy change was, in part, precipitated by the need to re-tool after a season in which they were eliminated in short order by the San Jose Sharks in the first round of the playoffs.
“One of the problems we’ve had with our success is that thing I said four years ago, that a pretty smart guy said to me,” said Lombardi. “It’s that whenever you’ve won, it’s not re-capturing the feeling. It’s re-inventing the feeling. That requires these guys to establish their own identity, their own basis to lead, and their own basis to get to the same place Dustin took us.”
“A lot of thought has gone into this, and you know [what] I believe about teams and how they evolve,” added Lombardi. “You keep your younger players off to the side and let them take it all in. But every year, they should start to move towards the middle. They should take the team over, and this is something that Kopitar and the [potential alternate captains] have been groomed for. It’s their turn to assume this responsibility. They’re inheriting this from Dustin, and they should be able to learn a lot from him.”
“This puts the responsibility squarely on the guy who needs to assume that role right now. That’s kind of the thought process here.”
The move, of course, was also about the fact that Brown’s play has been well below expectations for some time now. The decline began in earnest after the 2012 Stanley Cup win and it continued through last season, even with the Kings winning the 2014 Stanley Cup as well.
“In my experience with players, particularly in dealing with difficult situations, and this was certainly unique,” said Lombardi. “When you first approach the player with this, it has to be a process. There’s a lot of things that go through [the player’s] mind. We were prepared to walk through this and take the time necessary because you don’t solve this, per se, with a player of Dustin’s stature, a player who has to be the best captain in Kings history with two Cups on his side that nobody can match, without being prepared to walk him through it as he goes through it, in his own mind, what this means.”
“We met on this four weeks ago,” added Lombardi. “When we first broached it with him, I told him, ‘OK. You need to walk out of here, take it all in and come back and see me when you get your thoughts. We’ll have another meeting where we’ll look at things from [your] perspective.’”
“Then we had another meeting,” added Lombardi. “Then it was imperative that he meet with [head coach] Darryl [Sutter]. Darryl flew back to meet with him and they talked about what his role needs to be and what he needs to do going forward. Then he came back and saw me two more times. To get him to a place to, number one, where he can be a big asset, just like Williams and those guys helped him, he has to help these guys through what he’s been through and make them as a good a leader as he was. The other part that’s critical, and like I told him, when you have a responsibility for 23 guys, he perfectly recognizes that for us to be successful, as a team, he has to get his game back to where he’s capable.”
Lombardi emphasized that physical conditioning, commitment, effort, motivation—none of those are issues for Brown.
“There’s no doubt, particularly this year, that he showed up in probably the best condition he’s ever been in,” Lombardi explained. “[Even though] he hasn’t produced at the level he’s certainly capable [of], I don’t think it’s been his effort. In a lot of cases, it’s that he tries so hard, and is so critical of himself. He puts enormous pressure on himself. This isn’t a player where he’s not up to his own standards because he’s not working, or one who’s become [unmotivated] because of his contract, or anything like that. It’s almost because he’s put too much on himself.”
“Then we had a number of meetings with the assistant coaches about putting the time in now to figure out how to get his game back to where, not long ago, he was one of the best power forwards in the league, and that’s where our focus has to be—solely on his game, and let these other guys—it’s their turn—to assume the responsibility,” Lombardi elaborated. “That doesn’t mean you’re not going to be called upon, at times, to advise these guys and help them through. But the second part needs to get done.”
“The most important thing in our discussions, having met with our assistant coaches, was that he’s really ready to buy into micro-managing his game. There’s no question that he works. There’s no question that he’s physically prepared. We got that part down. If that wasn’t there, we’d be wasting our time.”
Lombardi indicated that Brown must shoot for returning to the form that made him one of the National Hockey League’s top power forwards.
“I really believe he’s going to get his game back,” said Lombardi. “Like I said, he’s in the best shape he’s ever been in, this past year. If you look at him now, to me, he’s still in his prime. It’s getting that focus on what he needs to get back to being one of the top five power forwards. But there’s no physical hindrance to him getting back to being that caliber of player.”
“It would be more of an issue if you didn’t think the kid cared or if he didn’t really want to get back there,” added Lombardi. “I don’t see that at all.”
Although Lombardi referred to Brown returning to the form that made him a top power forward, that probably doesn’t mean what you think.
“When we say. ‘get your game back,’ we’re looking at certain things that are normalized per minutes played,” said Lombardi. “That means you don’t need 30 goals. So when I say, ‘get your game back,’ it’s not necessarily get 25-30. Where he needs to be has a different standard that he’s perfectly capable of meeting, regardless of power play time and ice time.”
“[Dramatically increased offensive output] is not driving the bus,” added Lombardi. “You’re probably looking at it as get 30 goals, play on the power play, and play a lot more, like he did back when we didn’t have other players. That’s not the case and that we’ve also explained to him, about where the job description needs to be for us to win. If every player meets his job description, you’ve got a chance to win, and it showed up then, conversely, in the struggles we had this year and why we’re not where we need to be at certain positions. That was taken out of the equation when I met with him and showed him. He didn’t disagree.”
“If those standards are met, which he clearly understands he’s capable of and should excel at, then he can probably get more ice time, and the job description [expands]. You move to another role. But where we need him to be right now is not related to any ice time in the past.”
After all that, Lombardi stressed that, as reported earlier, the move was more about the growth of Kopitar and others than it was about Brown.
“The first part that drives the bus is that it’s time for Kopitar to take over,” Lombardi noted. “He’s been bred for it, he’s been trained for it, he’s one of our top players, he’s moving into his prime—it’s his turn. That’s the way we look at it.”
“The second part of that is what’s important for [Brown] is to get [his] game back, and then, to assist these guys like you were assisted as you were going through the process,” Lombardi added. “But [the part that drives] the bus has always been in the back of my mind—that the young players who came through [their system] and have been top players now need to be top leaders.”
Kopitar also spoke with the media via conference call and he expressed mixed emotions.
“The initial thought is that it’s a very exciting day, being named captain,” he said. “It’s something that, during Brownie’s time, I never gave it a whole lot of thought because I always looked at him as being our guy. So it’s a sweet and sour taste in my mouth, just because he and I are very good friends, and we’ve developed a very strong relationship over the course of my tenure in L.A. Quite frankly, he’s the only guy who’s been there [since] right when I got to L.A., so I wouldn’t say [it’s] awkward. Maybe a little bitter.”
“Let’s not forget that Brownie took us to two Stanley Cups, so those are big shoes to fill,” he added. “It’ll be hard stepping in. I get it. But at the same time, I’m very excited about it.”
Like Lombardi, Kopitar pointed out that Brown is still a leader on the team.
“You can’t just throw away eight years [under Brown’s captaincy],” Kopitar noted. “For the guys not to look at him as a leader [would be] very dumb because he’s been there. He’s won it. He’s been a force for us. It’s just that the last few years, and he’ll be the first one to tell you, didn’t go the way he wanted. Hopefully, he can get that back. I’m definitely going to need his help, and I’m going to need him by my side.”
“I don’t think our relationship is going to change,” Kopitar added. “I’m still going to need him right beside me to help me out with a lot of stuff. Hopefully, we can continue to manage and work together.”
Kopitar indicated that after two seasons in which the Kings did not meet expectations, change was inevitable.
“The last two seasons for us have been disappointing,” he noted. “There’s no secret to it. I believe that our top guys—us—we didn’t perform to our potential. Therefore, we didn’t make the playoffs two years ago and we got eliminated in the first round this year. It simply wasn’t good enough, so to have that change—I’m sure it’s nothing to do with Brownie. It’s the organization trying to find something—give him a break and take some of the burden off his shoulders so he can find his game again.”
Kopitar said that he relishes the new challenge.
“I didn’t envision it, but at the same time, I’m super excited about it,” he said. “It’s a great honor. But with great honor comes great responsibility, too. I’ve been around a little bit now. I grew in L.A. I played with some guys who have been captains and great leaders on teams. I think I’ve learned a lot and I think I’m up for the challenge.”
“I think that every professional athlete wants to be a leader, and wants to be the guy everybody is depending on in key moments,” he added. “That comes with play on the ice, but if you can add the ‘C’ to your jersey, it’s an honor.”
“I love challenges. I love going up against the odds. I’m the only Slovenian who’s ever played in the NHL. I beat those odds. In my mind, that’s pretty good. I’m definitely up for challenges and very driven with this. It’ll give me another boost of confidence, and another perspective on what kind of person and player that I can be going forward. Again, I’m really looking forward to this opportunity and to accept the challenge.”
Kopitar also spoke of his view of the challenge ahead.
“[It’s about] being a leader,” he noted. “Being a guy other players are looking up to and can depend on. I’m not necessarily the loudest guy in the locker room. I’ll try to lead by example and do all the stuff right on and off the ice, and everything else that comes with it. Hopefully, [I’ll be someone] the guys can follow.”
Despite the change in captains, don’t expect much change in the dressing room.
“It’s not going to be different,” said Kopitar. “Maybe there will be some minor things that we do differently, but I don’t think a whole lot is going to be different than it was.”
“We pride ourselves on [having] strong character in our room,” added Kopitar. “I don’t think me coming in means that there are going to be some drastic changes. The guys are going to be themselves and that’s all we want them to be.”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar. Photo: David Sheehan/CaliShooterOne Photography.
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