LOS ANGELES — Last June, when the Los Angeles Kings announced that center Anze Kopitar would replace winger Dustin Brown as captain, Brown was not happy about the change, even though he said that he respected the decision and fully supported Kopitar.
At the time, Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi said that one of the reasons for the change was to help Brown get his game back after struggling since the team won the 2012 Stanley Cup Championship.
“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,” said Lombardi. “[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,” added Lombardi. “It’s almost because he’s put too much on himself.”
With seven goals and 16 assists for 23 points in 49 games, Brown is not lighting up the National Hockey League this season. But to be fair, he has never done that, even in his best years.
This year, Brown is on a slightly improved pace over last season, in terms of scoring. But as Lombardi emphasized when the captaincy change was made, Brown’s improvement is not based entirely on points.
“When we say, ‘get your game back,’ we’re looking at certain things that are normalized per minutes played,” he said. “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 [last] 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.”
As the season has progressed, Brown has done just that. Indeed, he has moved from one line to another, starting the season on the third line with Nic Dowd and Devin Setoguchi—they were the Kings most productive line for several weeks. He now finds himself on the team’s top line with Marian Gaborik and Kopitar, and it’s no coincidence that both players appear to be emerging from season-long slumps with Brown on their right side.
Brown is also seeing time on the power play and penalty-kill—he’s playing in all situations.
After scoring a goal on a deflection and adding an assist in a 5-0 blowout of the Colorado Avalanche at Staples Center in Los Angeles on February 1, Brown indicated that things are looking up for him.
“It’s probably more just relaxing a little bit more,” he said. “There’s not as much on my plate this year. It’s kind of just focusing on my game on the ice. I don’t have to deal with a lot of the other stuff anymore. A lot of it is just trying to find another inch here, another inch there.”
Earlier in the season, Brown was reticent to acknowledge the significance of not having to deal with all the responsibilities of being captain. But now, evidence suggests that he has accepted it.
But it’s more than that for Brown.
“[The responsibilities of being captain is] a lot to take [on],” he noted. “But the biggest thing is that I don’t take the game home as much, which is a really important thing. One of the most important changes for me this year is not taking the emotion of what happens here home with me and having a mental break when I’m not at the rink. It’s a combination of [fewer responsibilities and leaving the game at the rink].”
Head coach Darryl Sutter also pointed to the burden having been lifted from Brown’s shoulders.
“I think he’s focusing on himself, not carrying the extra weight on his shoulders,” he said. “We watch how we use him, things like that. We want him to be a plus player, a good checker, get around the net and be a good net presence for our club.”
No matter how you slice it, Brown is playing better hockey this season. It certainly appears that Lombardi’s plan for him is working.
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings forward Dustin Brown. Photo: David Sheehan/CaliShooterOne Photography.
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