Aside from some good numbers back in the run-and-gun Marc Crawford era, Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar -- despite putting together some pretty good individual numbers -- have only occasionally rediscovered their initial chemistry. There have been some highlight-reel goals -- Kopitar's aerial pass to Brown two Decembers ago comes to mind -- but these have been eclipsed by vast stretches in each of the last three seasons in which neither player could buy a point. A telling moment came at the end of...2008?...when Brown told a reporter that they needed a left-winger, and Lombardi essentially responded (also in the press) "WTF?!" Lombardi clearly expected Brown, Kopitar and whoever was part of the "core" then, to take it upon themselves to get it done, not shift the blame to the absence of linemate x.
(This sentiment was echoed yesterday by Darryl Sutter, in his comments in the LA Times, which I will paraphrase as "stop talking about the team the team the team and start making things happen yourselves." I believe his actual quote was more colorful. But more on the Sutter comments later...)
Having said that, Lombardi brought in Ryan Smyth, who, paired frequently with Justin Williams, made whoever they played with look pretty good. For a few weeks, it was Smyth - Kopitar - Williams, and they were the hottest line in the league. And then Murray moved Smyth and Williams to the Stoll line, and suddenly the xx - Kopitar - Brown line was cold and Stoll's line was hot. The revolving door at Kopitar's left has seen countless wingers come and go, Smyth, Matt Moulson (who has scored about 100 goals the last three years), Teddy Purcell, Dustin Penner, Marco Sturm, Alex Frolov, Andrei Loktionov, Scott Parse, Simon Gagne, Dwight King, (next game) Jordan Nolan, Brad Richardson, Trevor Lewis, Mike Richards, etc. (etc.!). Is that the fault of Dean Lombardi, not providing Kopitar with a winger of enough skill and talent? That's one theory. And yet: Smyth, Williams, Frolov, Brown, Gagne, Moulson, Penner...30+ goal scorers all. In the past few years, Kopitar and Brown were bailed out by secondary scoring. Michal Handzus, Wayne Simmonds, Brad Richardson, and assorted others (Parse one year, Moller another) came through with key goals during the Kopitar/Brown droughts. This year, we saw a little of this, with some games being won by the third and/or fourth lines single-handed (in terms of scoring, I mean -- obviously all four lines have been excellent defensively all year and, really, for several years).
While writing this post, I noticed Matt Berry beat me to it:
Darryl Sutter ripped into his top players today [...: "T]hese guys talk too much about the team. They should talk more about more about themselves, what they bring to the table. … Kopi and Brownie have been stale, from my standpoint, for a little while together. In terms of producing opportunities, if it’s working backwards, in terms of who you perceive as your fourth line, to your first, then it’s not really a team thing.’’ [...]
After all, Lombardi DID DO what he said he would do: a) fixed the back end (Kings 3rd in defense) b) fixed the goaltending (Quick 3rd in GAA) c) Got two 1st line centers (Kopitar and Richards) But if Kopitar, at 6.8 million ain't cutting it, and (an affordable) Brown, a disaster as Captain, haven't "stepped up" why not a big juicy blockbuster?
Carter and Richards would be #1 and #2. Nash and Williams ain't too shabby. [...] If Flyers fans didn't revolt when they dealt Richards AND Carter, Kings fans won't if Nash and Carter are the return.
Although I'm not as vituperative as Matt, I agree with his criticisms. Whether the trade he suggests would be good or bad is another issue, one which I am by no means clear on.
Having started this post, and then reading Matt, I started writing some sentences I quickly realized I had written before. Two years before. This is January 2010:
Note to players making more than $3 million per year: just because you're playing the system and it's all about the team andyou're paying attention to the little things DOESN'T MEAN YOU CAN'T TAKE OVER A GAME AND STEAL A FEW - Jewels From The Crown
The nice thing about buying-in to the system is that, in theory, if you take the leap of faith, the system works. And, lo and behold, the system does work. For the most part, the Kings are the best team they've been since the beginning of the decade, and for the most part the players have committed to Terry Murray's system. It helps to know that, when the game isn't going well, you can redouble your commitment to the system, and that's all you have to think about: your job. Same goes for when you're up 6-0 and there's a temptation to sit back. No. You still play the system. The other advantage of playing with this kind of team discipline is that it helps reduce the anxiety that comes from being a young, inexperienced team with young, inexperienced leaders. The system gives the young players something to hang their hat on.
But I realized tonight that my frustration watching Kopitar and Brown -- I'm going to resist characterizing their play and just focus on results -- is not so much that they frequently seem to be drifting or uncertain, or that they miss the net when I want them to NOT...it's really just the small matter that for some reason they aren't putting the team on their shoulders and winning some of these games all by themselves.
And that's irrational, isn't it? Why should I expect that of these two players, and not of Frolov or Stoll or Handzus? (Let's pretend that Handzus hasn't been on a tear the last month or so, and that all three of these players aren't lately putting up better numbers than Brown and Kopitar.) It doesn't make sense for me to expect the players to buy-in to the team system and ALSO that they should take it upon themselves to be difference makers. Because that's contradictory, right? That's basically saying, play the system but don't. Right?
Because the way Kopitar is supposed to be winning games all by himself is not by ignoring the system or going rogue, it's by buying-in even more, which means doing all the things he was doing at the beginning of the year, moving his feet, hitting, accelerating, driving to the net, crashing to the net, shooting at the net not past it, so that screens and crashing and traffic actually mean something and have an effect. (p.s. shooting wide is not buying-in; because what happens when you shoot wide is you are trying to pick the corner and use your skill to make the perfect shot; instead of trusting that putting it on net with traffic is going to lead to the kinds of goals the team is built to score. That's why Smyth is standing there, or Handzus, getting his ass kicked. When you miss the net because you're special and you can make the perfect highlight reel shot, you're hanging everyone else out to dry. You miss the net, and they're just standing there. The other team breaks out. One-goal loss.)
I get the feeling from listening to Kopitar talk that he thinks he's doing his job if he's doing the little things, buying-in, back-checking, covering all the x's and o's. That's, as they say, necessary but not sufficient. The platitude that if they keep doing the little things then the bounces will start going their way is wearing thin. Said platitude has the infuriating virtue of being true. As far as it goes. And it's extra frustrating, at least for me, because I feel slightly mean expecting poor Kopitar and Brown who have given their all to the system to take on the even greater burden of making wins happen out of thin air.
Nevertheless, I expect it. And, frankly, the expectation is built into their salaries.
What is the expectation exactly? It begins with the fact that Kopitar and Brown have superior abilities. They are more skilled than many of their peers. They are faster, stronger, smarter -- pick your attribute, they have more of it. That's why they were picked when they were picked. That's why they get, as they say, the big bucks. When Parse, Richardson, Moller, Simmonds or Segal are as effective as our leaders, it is in fact a failing of the leaders. (I don't mean in a single game; when it happens every once in a while, it's called secondary scoring; when it happens for a few months or even a few seasons, it's called a leadership vacuum.) Because Kopitar and Brown pushing themselves to excel within the system must yield more goals than Parse, Richardson et al doing it. Because they're better. And they're paid accordingly.
My guess is that being a 22 year old multi-millionaire superstar hockey player in a foreign country is mildly terrifying on a daily basis. Even more so now that there is an actual expectation that the team is going to win and you are going to lead them. And let's not forget the pressure created by the fact that you (Brown, now) publicly called out your boss on the need for a genuine top-six left wing, because (boo hoo) it's hard for you to play over there. Passing the buck, never a good idea. Bosses remember that. Who among them has had the thought that, hey, they went out and got just what we asked for, and we're having the same trouble as last year. We know that Lombardi did not appreciate the Dustin Brown wish list. He said as much last summer. He made a comment to the effect that those two players should be taking it upon themselves to get the job done. So far, they have not. And while I'm not really of the belief that this so-far disastrous homestand is the season in a nutshell, I have already said that the mini-season of the 20 games leading up to the break will likely decide whether the Kings are in the playoffs or not, and so will determine where at least one or two of the current Kings play for the next several years.
Back to my point about the pressure they're under: I think there is a huge temptation to hide inside the system, to let the system (that is to say, the coach) take over the entire burden of leadership. It would be kind of nice if they could get a leadership pass just by buying into the system and letting the system magically win the games for them. That would be easier than the actual job, which is to lead. And, again, I don't mean to say they should be "taking the law into their own hands." That's not leadership. Leadership would be, for example: playing within the system with all knobs set, a la Spinal Tap, to 11. Because Brown's 11, Kopitar's 11, that's louder, bigger, just plain better, than everyone else's 11. I don't want to see players make themselves smaller within the system. I want them to make themselves bigger. Because they are bigger. They need to play bigger. Because, frankly -- and I mean this in the best possible sense -- these guys have not won and don't actually know how to win. (win=playoffs; win means winning like teams like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, New Jersey, manage to do year after year, not just being "better than last year") When they have won then they will know.