For a player who was drafted in the first round, named captain at age 24 and twice presented the Stanley Cup on home ice, the past month represents the nadir of Dustin Brown’s tenure with the Los Angeles Kings.
Coming off one playoff win in two seasons and back-to-back-to-back seasons in which he recorded 27, 27 and 28 points, his performance has certainly slipped from a production standpoint, as did the team’s competitive standing over the final two years of that window, perhaps influencing the news last month that he had been told that he would no longer be captain of the Kings, as reported by Frank Seravalli of TSN.
In a conference call on Thursday, Brown spoke on a variety of topics for the first time since last month’s news broke. He expanded on his relationship with management and Head Coach Darryl Sutter, his tenure as a captain and the manner in which the news that he would no longer be captain leaked. He was emotional but firm, angry and honest while sharing a revealing glimpse towards the character of a player whose influence spread to all corners of the team’s room but whose production had waned.
“I think first and foremost I was very proud of what we as a group have accomplished while I have been captain of this team,” Brown said. “We won the Cup twice, so it was a really tough process. It’s one of those things where I’m a player, and this is a decision management chose to make, so I respect that decision. It was a tough pill to swallow. There are a lot of emotions that go through it, but at the end of the day, it was really out of my control because this is a management decision, not the players voting on it or anything like that. Quite honest, it would’ve been a lot harder had it been my teammates doing this.”
Instead of his teammates, the decision was made by coaches and management. General Manager Dean Lombardi had originally met with Brown roughly six weeks ago to inform the 31-year-old of the choice to transfer the captaincy to Anze Kopitar. They met several more times – Brown said the talks were for “20 minutes to two hours, five or six times” – and ultimately Darryl Sutter flew back to Los Angeles to join a conversation that was ultimately disrupted when news of the “C” changing jerseys was reported.
“It just was a process and then it leaked in the middle of that process,” Brown said. “Quite honestly, I felt they should have addressed it then and they didn’t really do that, so it was just a very awkward and stressful two three weeks. You guys were probably sitting there writing articles and kind of guessing, because for whatever reason it was leaked and never addressed. When they did address it, it was the announcement of Kopi, and that’s part of the reason I didn’t want to make myself available that day. I remember the day I was named captain. It was under different circumstances. But I felt that day the press release came out, that day was Kopi’s day. It’s a pretty big honor and a pretty big day for him personally, and I wanted him to have the spotlight. I didn’t want to be answering these types of questions on a day when it should be about the new guy. That’s part of the problem I’ve had with this whole situation.”
How the news leaked is unclear. What did come into greater focus on Thursday, however, was the nature of the relationship between Brown and Sutter. Neither party had publicly opined on the subject, though Sutter did note in March that Kopitar and Jonathan Quick “set the template for our team in terms of leadership and what’s going on,” and referred to Kopitar as the team’s captain. Any notions of undercurrents of dissatisfaction between Brown and Sutter appeared to be affirmed when Brown said that sitting down with his coach “probably should’ve happened a year ago,” and was used to “clear some of the air between me and Darryl.”
“I think we both want the same thing and have probably looked at it in different ways, so I think it was just a meeting that needed to happen for us to move forward,” he said. “Part of it was about what my role is, but a lot of it was about stuff that just needed to be addressed, so that’s what it was for, and I think it probably helped both sides.”
“Ultimately, I understand the decision and I respect the decision. Part of my problem was how it was handled. It just put me in an awkward spot. Not taking the C away, because like I said, hey, that’s their decision. We were in the middle of a process – I just didn’t think it was handled very well, considering it leaked. I’m pretty sure my wife and my friends don’t have people’s numbers to leak it to and they wouldn’t leak it, so it was just disappointing how that unfolded from my perspective. We were kind of going through the process of figuring it out. It wasn’t like a 15-minute meeting, and then that was it.”
The focus now, from both the player and the team’s perspective, is to help facilitate a return towards Brown’s previous levels of production. There is the thought that by no longer serving as captain, Brown’s focus can be inward, and not towards overseeing the collective needs and wants of the group.
“His focus so critically has to be on his game, and I think there is some merit to that,” Dean Lombardi said last month. “The most important thing in our discussion, and having met with our assistant coaches, was that he’s ready to buy in, so to speak, to micromanaging his game, because there’s no question he works, there’s no question he shows up physically prepared.”
A return towards previous levels of production will be a challenge. Brown scored 18 goals in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, though that goals rate came with a 12.7% shooting percentage, the second highest rate of his career. Since then, his percentage has dropped to 7.7%, 5.8% and 5.0%, the lowest rates of his career since his 31-game, 19-year-old rookie season of 2003-04.
Last season, his shots came from a slightly greater distance away from the attacking net, even as his possession metrics remained strong. He saw the ice with high-grade talent, too, having seen more minutes alongside Drew Doughty than any other King, followed by Anze Kopitar and Jake Muzzin.
“I think there’s a lot that goes into being a captain, and like I said, I enjoyed the responsibility, but whether I have a C on my chest or not, I’m always going to put pressure on myself to be better because I’m not OK with just being OK,” he said. “If you are, then you’re out of this league pretty quickly, and I think this is maybe them trying to get me to a place where I’m not worried about the young guys or all the stuff you kind of have to worry about a little bit more when you’re the captain, and now I can just focus on my game a little bit more is the idea. Like I said, it’s a tough pill to swallow … but it’s a decision that’s made by management. My job is to be a better hockey player.”
Dustin Brown, on whether he foresaw a change in the captaincy coming, and whether he felt a change in captaincy was needed:
Did I ever see this coming? I mean, not really. I mean, I think I’ve done very well in this position. We’ve struggled the last couple years, but I think that’s a byproduct of a lot of things. In saying that, I don’t think this one change represents what needs to happen for us to be successful, but like I said, management felt this was one of the things that needed to change. I can’t say I agree with it, honestly. In saying that, I think Kopi’s going to be a great captain. I’ve been locker and stallmates with him since he came into this league, and he’ll be fine in this situation, and I have all the faith in the world in Kopi in being the guy now. But from my perspective, I wasn’t happy with this decision. Again, I’m a player, and these are decisions for management to make, and we’ll see where it goes.
Brown, on how he views his relationship with management evolving in the long-term:
I mean, that’s a tough question, I guess. I’m not going to say it’s rosy, but at the end of the day, my responsibility and my job and what I ultimately care about is performing and playing well for my teammates, and that wasn’t ever not the case. I mean, I don’t want to let my teammates down first and foremost, because those are the guys that you go to battle with, and those are the guys that it affects the most. So that’s kind of my focus and my perspective. I obviously don’t see eye-to-eye with this decision, but I respect it, and like I said, I’m a player, they’re management and coaches, and ultimately they get the say in this, so my job is to be a better hockey player for my teammates and as a result help this team win. Again, like I said, it’s a tough pill to swallow, but it’s a business and I understand all that. It’s my job just to come ready to go in September.
Brown, on hypothetical trades or player movement when speaking with management:
I mean, we had pretty candid conversations. From my perspective, I think they’ve tried to trade me and have been unable to come to a deal. Whether that was last week or three months ago or five months ago or a year ago, I couldn’t tell you. It’s one of those things where at the end of the day, that’s their job to figure out if they want me a part of this team, and if they don’t, to find a way to move me. My job is to play hockey, and that’s always been my focus. I’ve never really worried about whether I’m going to be a part of this team. I’ve always believed that I’ll be a part of this team. We had pretty frank discussions about my role, and they were pretty up front with me in some regards. Like I said, it is what it is at this point. It’s my job to play hockey.
Brown, on his meetings with Darryl Sutter:
At the end of the day, the conversation just allowed me and Darryl to get on the same page – where I was coming from, where he was coming from. In regards to my roles, that’s really his call. Like I said, I’m a player, he’s a coach. I don’t control the type of role I’m in. It’s just my job to do whatever I’m assigned to the best of my ability. I think the meeting was more to just air some things out and move on, because it was just one of those things where we needed to reconnect, and probably I needed to hear some things from him, and he needed to hear some things from me, and that’s what kind of happened.
Brown, on whether he would be captain next season if he had the choice:
Yeah. Like I said earlier, … if I was OK with this decision, in the first place, then it probably was the right decision. I felt like I’ve done a very good job leading this team I thought we, as a group, did a good job over the last – people look at the last couple of years and that has been very disappointing for all involved and we all have a lot of work to do to get back where we want to be. But I just remember when I was named captain where we were at as a team. I mean, it was not a pretty picture, so what I’ve been able to accomplish with the help of a lot of my teammates has been pretty great, and I felt I’m still able to do that. I’m not 37 and on my way out. That’s the way I see it. I’m a good hockey player. I’ve got to get back to playing good hockey. I guess that’s my attitude now, is it’s no longer my responsibility to burden the responsibly of the C. That’s not to say I don’t think I can still do it. Kopi will do a great job.