Dustin Brown still in Kings' plans after losing captaincy
The Los Angeles Kings’ decision to take the captaincy from Dustin Brown and give it to Anze Kopitar was not the beginning of the end of Brown’s time with the team.
General manager Dean Lombardi believes it will give Brown a chance to rediscover his game without the pressure and scrutiny of wearing the captain’s 'C.'
Lombardi said the team informed Brown about a month ago and then had multiple meetings with him afterwards to discuss the situation and leadership transition. Brown had been the team's captain since 2008 and led them to Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014. He was drafted by the Kings in 2003.
“It’s getting that focus on what he needs to get back to being one of the top five power forwards,” Lombardi said on a Thursday conference call with reporters after the move was announced. “There’s no physical hindrance for him not getting back to being that caliber player.”
When asked specifically if he wanted to buy out Brown, who has six years left on an eight-year $47 million contract, Lombardi staunchly said, “No, no, certainly not at this stage, no.”
He then added, “I really believe he’s going to get his game back.”
Brown's role has been marginalized to a mostly third-line spot and the past three seasons and during that stretch he has averaged 12.3 goals per-year.
This past season he scored 11 goals, after changing his diet and workout habits the prior summer. According to Naturalstattrick he held a 58.73 5-on-5 score-adjusted CF% and plus-3.31 score-adjusted CF% Rel.
The team is on the hook for $1.57 million of Mike Richards’ salary cap hit through next season, and buying out Brown would add more money against the cap towards players not on LA’s roster.
But having him on the roster also makes the Kings’ offseason plans difficult both for this year and beyond.
Brown was not available for comment Thursday.
On the conference call, Lombardi was asked about contract talks with high-profile pending unrestricted free agent Milan Lucic.
Lombardi said there were, “A number of things we need to work through we didn’t anticipate, but we haven’t given up.”
Lucic just finished the last season of a three-year $18 million contract. The Kings were only responsible for $3.25 million of that deal. He scored 20 goals last season and was a plus-26.
According to General Fanager, the team has near $68.1 million tied into 36 contracts for next season. This doesn’t include Vincent Lecavalier’s $2.25 million salary cap hit, which is expected to fall off when he officially retires.
The $71.4 million salary cap could stay “relatively flat” according to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.
Also, young sniper Tyler Toffoli (who scored 31 goals last season) will be a restricted free agent next summer and will likely command a large raise from the $3.25 million he got this past year.
Brown reportedly has a modified no trade clause, but would be eligible for the expansion draft, since it doesn’t involve a no movement clause – as outlined in the rules reported by Sportsnet.
In that case would a possible Las Vegas franchise want to take a chance on Brown for $5.875 million per-year at five more years? Brown’s deal appears untradeable currently so the expansion draft would be the Kings' best chance to get rid of the deal.
At his best, Brown is one of the NHL’s heaviest hitters. His ability to change a game, or a playoff series, with a bone-crushing bodycheck helped the Kings to two Stanley Cup championships.
But there’s been a growing feeling that he doesn’t jibe with what head coach Darryl Sutter wants.
During an interview in March, Sutter essentially said the team’s leadership responsibilities had already been moved to Kopitar.
“Our team, the top players are also the captains, so it goes hand-in-hand. It’s a lot of responsibility for Kopi, but that’s good responsibility and it’s good pressure,” Sutter said. “I trust him on and off the ice, so you expect him to be a top guy in both those areas. He’s a top player on the ice and he’s our captain.”
At another point, when asked about Brown, Sutter noted that others had stepped up in the team’s locker room, “We have a group of captains. Brownie was the captain, and he’s been the captain for how many years? So that’s the ‘C.’ But Brownie also likes having lots of support around him, and we’ve had that. That’s how we’ve won here. It wasn’t on one guy. We had a lot of guys who don’t wear letters that were captains.”
If the Kings want Brown to rediscover his game, Sutter will have to give him that chance.
“It’s not necessarily by definition getting 25-30 (goals),” Lombardi said. “Where he needs to be has a different standard that he’s perfectly capable of meeting regardless of power play time or ice-time. Obviously there’s some element but it’s not driving the bus.”
Overall the decision to take the captaincy from Brown and transfer it to Kopitar isn’t the wrong choice by the Kings. By the time Kopitar’s career is over he will be mentioned along with team greats like Luc Robitaille, Wayne Gretzky, Marcel Dionne, Rob Blake and others. Maybe he'll even have a statue in front of Staples Center like Robitaille and Gretzky at some point.
This generation of the team has been defined more by the play of him and Drew Doughty than by Brown. Also, Kopitar is the team’s highest-paid player and will see a new eight-year $80 million contract start next season. He has led the team in scoring the last nine seasons.
A team’s best player often wears the captain’s ‘C’ and the Kings hadn’t had this structure for a while.
Also, by ripping off the Band-Aid and naming a successor right away the Kings avoided a situation like the San Jose Sharks in 2014-15 when they took Joe Thornton’s ‘C’ from him and spent an entire year with alternates.
Leadership wasn't the reason why the Kings' have struggled the last two seasons -- missing the playoffs and being ousted in the first-round -- but a jolt in this department could help.
“It’s their turn to assume this responsibility,” Lombardi said of Kopitar and his team's other young leaders. “They’ve been groomed for this as players and as leaders and now it’s their time.”
Lombardi noted that a change in leadership in most sports generally happens naturally and not in the public eye like in hockey.
“It evolves on its own without the signature of a letter being on somebody, whether it’s Derek Jeter assuming the mantle from Don Mattingly,” he said.
Ultimately being stuck with Brown’s contract won’t sink the Kings. He’s still a player that’s productive and someone who cares greatly about his game. It’s certainly the biggest change the Kings have made so far this summer where there was expected to be some upheaval. But was it a big enough change to help this team move forward?
“He perfectly recognizes for us to be successful as a team he needs to get his game back to where he’s capable,” Lombardi said. “There’s no doubt, particularly this year – that he showed up probably in the best condition he’s ever been in. Despite he hasn’t produced at the level he’s certainly capable, I don’t think it has been his effort. In a lot of cases I think it’s because he tries to hard and he’s so critical on himself and puts enormous pressure on himself.”
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Josh Cooper is an editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @joshuacooper