Raise your hand if you’ve heard this before: Following trade rumors surrounding LA Kings captain Dustin Brown, a young player comes up from the AHL, adding energy to the team and balance to the offensive options – and then team goes on to win the Stanley Cup. Yes, history could be repeating itself about six months from now.
Before we get to all that, let’s build upon a little ‘tidbit’ we added to the bottom of our recent story regarding Anze Kopitar’s contract negotiations; specifically, the note that predicted Kopitar will be the Kings captain come opening night next season. For people who have been reading MayorsManor for any real length of time, you already know this was not meant as a knock on Brown. In fact, we’ve often been accused of being a Brown apologist, supporter, part-time agent… you get the idea. Some of this is true. In my humble opinion, Brown is a fine captain. No, he isn’t Mike Modano or Mark Messier. Fine. He is everything you want in a ‘team-first’ guy. He is a role model in and out of the locker room and it is worth noting he is the first American-born captain to lead his team to two Stanley Cups.
Now, put all of that to the side momentarily and look forward.
Placing the captaincy on Kopitar is a move several in management believe would ultimately aid the Slovenian-born center in taking his game to the next level. It’s been mentioned to us more than once that they believe he has another gear in him. And, along with his reported 8-year, $78-million contract extension, this could be just the thing to bring such thoughts to reality. Think Jonathan Toews and you’ll probably get the idea.
Additionally, the reality of Brown’s situation comes with several factors – and we can pick them off in no particular order.
His age – once you hit 30 in the NHL, stats usually begin to change. He is coming off a disastrous season, in which he scored 27 points (11 goals, 16 assists), and despite taking his off-season conditioning to a whole new level this past summer, reality shows he is on pace for about the same number of points this year. There is a bit of a chicken-or-egg aspect to his stats. Is he a different player now than he was five years ago or is he being used differently? A little of both, certainly. While Brown often plays better in a top-6 role, he also plays for a coach who prefers him on the third line. There is an obvious friction between the two. Don’t mistake that for anything more than common place in sports. Of course, there is also healthy respect, as well. Player and coach don’t have to be best friends, nor do they need to roast s’mores together at a campfire. Success comes in many forms and hockey is more a team sport than the dynamics between any two individuals.
His contract – Brown is currently in the second season of an 8-year deal holding a $5.875M annual cap hit. It is not the worst contract in the NHL. And if you’re willing to pay for intangibles, that makes up for some of the loss in point production, but not enough. In the Kings 2012 Stanley Cup run, Brown tied Kopitar for the NHL lead in postseason goals and points. He came back the following year and netted 18 goals in the lockout-shortened season (equivalent to a 30 goal season any other year). More recently, he has become a very expensive option on the third line, especially when you consider Kopitar and Milan Lucic are among the players needing contacts in 2016, just ahead of Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson the following summer. Simple logic (along with a little bit of math) would suggest you can’t carry big ticket deals in your bottom-6 when guys in the top-6 are all on large deals themselves. Right now, the Kings are OK, largely due to Toffoli and Pearson being on uber-affordable bridge contracts. However, that will not be the case with their next contracts, where both should receive substantial increases over their current pay (including most likely buying out some of their unrestricted free agent years). That money has to come from somewhere.
His immediate future – Brown is not likely to be traded soon. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. From what we’ve been told by several sources in Kings’ management, Lombardi’s plan is to load up for a deep playoff run and then deal with his cap issues next summer. Yes, he is still looking to add a top-4 defensemen. However, as we understand the current situation, based on preliminary talks with other teams and/or surveying the market, don’t expect Brown to be included in any deal for blueline help. For that to happen, a near-perfect situation would just about have to fall into Lombardi’s lap. It is much more likely any such deal happens closer to the trade deadline and will involve a combination of prospects, draft picks, and one of the team’s excess bottom-6 wingers. Understand, the Kings are not in cap trouble this season, nor will they be at any point. The financial situation is so positive, in February they will be able to take on any contract in the NHL.
If all else fails, there is another option lurking in the background. Even though Brown is one of the few current Kings’ players with a limited no trade/movement clause, there don’t appear to be any conditions that would prevent Lombardi from exposing him in the expected NHL Expansion Draft coming up in the summer of 2017. He would be a rather attractive option for a new club entering the league.
“The superior man blames himself. The inferior man blames others.” – Don Shula
A Lombardi-affect is also in play when looking at the overall situation related to Brown’s future. The longtime GM likely wants to distance himself from the criticism of not buying out Mike Richards soon enough. Not to say that Brown will be bought out, as we don’t see that as an option on the table – only that Lombardi will be looking to address this cap burden before it becomes too late. Fortunately for Lombardi, as he has said many times, General Managers around the league very often think they can ‘fix’ players from other teams. Thus, despite his contract, there may be (and should be) several teams willing to acquire a two-time Stanley Cup champion, two-time Olympian, captain of multiple teams, former first round draft pick, and all-around clean-cut, good citizen. Don’t lose sight of the fact Brown was also one of the early converts of Lombardi’s preaching in Los Angeles. He was the first guy who ‘got the tattoo’ and has steadfastly put the Kings ahead of his own needs or wants. This should weigh heavily on any decision. Some would even argue Brown has earned the right to retire a King.
Looking further up the AEG food chain, team owner Phil Anschutz is renowned for being a deeply private person. He is allegedly eager to turn the page and move on from the PR nightmares of the past few seasons. By no means does this link Brown to the stories of Slava Voynov or Richards. Only that an added benefit of trading Brown next summer is a chance to rebrand the team and aid Lombardi in moving on to his second act. Entering the 2016-17 campaign, it will be Kopitar’s team, with Jeff Carter, Jonathan Quick and Drew Doughty by his side. Following the old adage that it takes five key players to win a Stanley Cup – two centers, two defensemen, and a goalie – Lombardi’s puzzle will be nearly complete. And this will be the foundation he will build around going forward.
In an ironic twist of fate, or perhaps just perfect timing, Lombardi is rumored to be penning a book, with a release date that is yet-to-be-determined. While we aren’t privy to the timeline he is working around, perhaps the summer following his third Stanley Cup championship would be the most fitting final chapter – a true comeback story after a number of tumultuous seasons.
Again, for now, Brown isn’t going anywhere. Will a move happen at some point in the future? That is the rough plan that has been discussed internally, with nothing imminent. All attention at the moment is focused on creating some space in the bottom-6 for prospect Michael Mersch, adding a key piece on the blueline, and trying to secure a third championship.
In my opinion, there should someday be a statue of Brown outside Staples Center, as him hoisting the organization’s first Cup is one of the most iconic images from their nearly 50-year history. It is a visual that will be difficult to replace in the decades to come, regardless of any future success the team may find. Yet at the same time, as they always do in sports, things move forward; so look for a Brown move in the summer and expect Kopitar to wear the ‘C’ come opening night next year.
Unless… What if the Kings win a third championship next June? Lombardi wouldn’t dare trade his captain then, would he – even for the coveted cap space?
Put a pin in this one; we’ll come back to it next summer.
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