On Friday I rather emphatically stated that Justin Williams would start the season as the Kings’ first line right winger. Less than 24 hours later, Terry Murray displayed the actual first line for the Kings at training camp, and Justin Williams wasn’t on it.
I have been known to be wrong.
So, with Dustin Brown getting the nod to play alongside Anze Kopitar and Ryan Smyth, some questions and analysis must follow.
First off, a look at Dustin Brown, who needs no introduction.
Dustin Brown “To lead is to act”
The Kings’ premiere power forward slaps the “C” on his chest for the third time. The leader of this team, on the ice and in the locker room, embodies the mantra of the Dean Lombardi brand of Kings hockey.
Hard, heavy and fast.
And something about a proctological tattoo.
We have seen Dustin score 30 goals in this league. We have seen him score less.
Brown is at the same time a fan favorite and a scapegoat. When he is throwing his weight around, which he does as well, if not better than anyone in the NHL, he brings the fans out of their seats and the best out of his line. On the flip side, when Brown deviates and attempts to primarily play a skilled man’s game, he frustrates his viewers and at worst, disassembles offense.
Last year Brown played almost exclusively with Jarrett Stoll, save for the random juggling next to Handzus and ample power play time next to Kopitar.
Which brings us to the first question. Is Terry Murray going to deviate this season from his approach of pairs? Murray has often said he likes to stick to pairs and not full 3-man lines. Those pairs were: Kopitar/Smyth, Stoll/Brown and Zus/Simmonds.
On its surface, it would appear that Brown simply no longer falls into one of the pairs. Kopitar is still with Smyth, Simmonds is still with Handzus, and presumably the 2nd line pair is either Stoll/Williams or Parse/Stoll. It would seem this is the case. However, Murray could also be putting the groundwork in place for a new pair of Kopitar/Brown.
Well, it wouldn’t be entirely new.
In Marc Crawford’s final sucky season with the Kings, Brown played almost exclusively with Kopitar. It was then, in 2007-2008 that Brown scored his career-high 60 points (33 goals and 27 assists).
The following year the captaincy was thrust upon Brown, only recently matured beyond the shy butt of Sean Avery’s teasing.
Since then Brown has scored 24 goals, twice, under Terry Murray and played next to Kopitar less and less.
Many have come to believe Brown and Kopitar simply don’t have chemistry. But this can’t be true as we have seen the chemistry before. Was it purely a result of Crawford’s high-octane ‘no defense’ offense? Possibly. Or does Crawford have nothing to do with it?
Either way, Terry Murray knows where any problems in Brown’s game lay.
Rich Hammond brings us the following quote from Saturday’s plethora of training camp info:
Terry Murray: “I know that sometimes I need to constantly remind Brownie about staying and using that kind of power-forward mentality. With Kopi dishing him the puck, I hope it comes sooner than later.”
This reminder is not new. Dustin Brown began to change his game after his breakout 30 goal season and donning of the ‘C’. Brown went from a north-south player to a puck carrier. He went from a finisher to a distributor. He went from being the perfect fit for Kopitar, to neutralizing Anze’s game.
Terry Murray wants the polar player to return. We heard this same reminder from Murray at several points during the 2009-2010 season.
From February 2nd, 2010:
Murray: “There was a stretch of time when he [Brown] was carrying the team on his shoulders, trying to make things happen himself, getting big hits, trying to score the big goals, trying to do everything. It’s impossibel to do. Just go out and play with a power-forward attitude, a power-forward game, keeping it simple, and good things are resulting from that.”
And from January 15, 2010:
Murray: “I think, in the past dozen games probably, you saw Brownie holding onto that puck and trying to do a lot of the 1-on-1 stuff, beating the defenseman or maybe just shooting the puck to the net.
… Now he brings other people into the attack, and that’s that give-and-go attitude and that support that works in the league. Now, with his attitude of going to the net, he’s a courageous guy and he never hesitates in bullying his way in and being ready for a return play. …if that’s something that we start to see on a consistent basis from Brownie, that would really get his numbers back up to where they should be.”
Based on Murray’s words and our own eye balls, we must surmise that Terry is banking on Brown thinking more about where he needs to get to on the ice and who he needs to go through to get there, and less about what to do with the puck.
Puck possession is a game Brown excels at, when he doesn’t have the puck. Puck handling is Kopitar and Smyth’s game, but not Dustin’s.
So what does this mean for the Kings’ new top line of Smyth-Kopitar-Brown?
Well hopefully it means nothing we haven’t already seen before. Should Brown manage to settle into that “support” role Murray spoke about earlier this year, there is absolutely no reason to think Brown will not be able to improve upon his past two 24-goal campaigns and even beyond his plateau of 33. In that way, and though they play completely different games personally, Brown can and should slot in on the first line in the same manner that Williams had before.
Williams is a support player, one that uses work along the boards to break loose his linemates. Brown is also best in a similar support role, only shifting that support from the corners into open ice. Speed is a killer, and Brown has speed to burn. Using his intimidating frame and top end velocity, Brown will open up space for Kopitar and Smyth by backing off forwards off the rush. When Kopitar is carrying the puck, defenders always must be aware that he can beat almost anyone one-on-one. Now, with Brown blazing down the wing and Smyth headed straight for the net, defenders must make a choice. Do they take away Kopitar’s time and space to make a play or do they prevent Smyth from reaching his destination in the blue paint? With Brown’s speed and physical domination, neither option works out well for the opposition. Focus on Kopitar and Brown will reach open territory near the net, leaving Kopitar to effortlessly put the puck behind the net for Smyth, and we all know Smyth can and will bring the rubber from behind to in front in a hurry. Try and cover Smyth and Kopitar will have all the time he needs to to put a shot on net and generate a rebound for the buzzing Brown to smack across the line. Focus on Brown and now you’ve left the two best forwards on the line under-attended.
Brown carries this team in heart and spirit. He need only buoy it when it comes to offense.
This all falls apart if Brown does not play the game of the prototypical power forward. Should he continue to try and stick handle around opponents, or shoot from bad angles as soon as he crosses the offensive blue-line, then Kopitar and Smyth can do little to compensate. In an interesting way, while Kopitar will carry the line on his back, Brown is the linchpin in the load being supportable.
At best, with Kopitar carrying the puck through the neutral zone, Smyth drawing attention behind the net, and Brown settling that large, tattooed rear-end of his in front of opposing goalies, 80-100 goals over the season is not out of the first line’s reach. For the math-heads out there, I arrive at 80-100 this way: Kopitar scoring 35-40, Brown netting 25-35 and Smyth banging home 20-25 goals.
Are those numbers at the top of the league? No.
Will they suffice?
That depends on the Kings’ 2nd and 3rd lines.