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2017-18 in Review: Don’t Call It A Comeback

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Just a year ago, people were calling for Dustin Brown to be exposed in the expansion draft, and worrying that Anze Kopitar couldn’t handle being captain. And then what happened?

NHL: Los Angeles Kings at Chicago Blackhawks Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

While the 2017-18 season ended with more of a whimper than Kings fans hoped for, we still learned a lot about the team, its players, and the direction for the future. Over the course of the next month, we’ll dive into the Kings’ roster and take a look at what worked, what didn’t work, and what things might look like in the coming season. As we wrap up our Year In Review series, today we take a look at captains, old and new.

On other teams, maybe it wouldn’t work.

Stripping your longest-tenured captain of the C, but keeping him on the team. Replacing him with a friend, sometimes-linemate, the team’s newest highest paid player.

It takes the right mix of personalities, egos, to make that a good transition, a productive change for your team.

For a season in Los Angeles, it didn’t work.

Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown each had career lows in 2016-17. The rallying cry to find some way to offload Brown’s contract — even at the expense of the #11 pick that the Kings had in the 2017 draft — grew stronger than ever. The rumors that Kopitar struggled with the weight of the C, that he’d turned 30 and fallen off a cliff, performance-wise, combined with a team that still had trouble finding their scoring touch, made it hard to see how he could bounce back.

Dustin Brown’s performance struggles could have been forgiven, if not for the huge contract that Dean Lombardi gave him. Brown has always played a physical game, more about what he can do with his body than with his hands. But Anze Kopitar, the new captain, the team’s $10 million man — he’s elite, the man behind most of the Kings’ scoring. A failure for Kopitar to bounce back, that would be another issue entirely.

Well. Never fear.

The rebound season, for both players, has been fantastic. Instead of being part of the rumor mill for a trade, Dustin Brown has shown that he can still compete and contribute. For the first time since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, Brown’s icetime and stats actually reflected that of what you’d expect from a first line player. Averaging 20 minutes a game, Brown found himself used in all situations, and the team, for the first time in a long time, was better with him on the ice — the Kings scored more goals, took more shots, and conceded less all around while he was playing.

Is some of that the Anze Kopitar Effect? Almost certainly. Per Natural Stat Trick, in 2016-17, Brown and Kopitar only spent 357 minutes together at even strength; in 2017-18, they were together for 987 minutes. But Brown wouldn’t have been there, that pairing wouldn’t have lasted, had Brown not found a way to contribute in one way or another. John Stevens has shown little hesitation to move players around when things aren’t working, and top line Dustin Brown worked.

While the Dustin Brown revival was less certain, we held great hope that Kopitar would bounce back after his dismal 2016-17 campaign, and he repaid us generously for our faith in him, helping drive the Kings both on offense and defense. Kopitar didn’t exactly change his game — he was doing all the right things, even when he wasn’t finding the back of the net.

Via Bill Comeau’s SKATR tool

Was it puck luck? Was it having a set of consistent linemates (the trio of Kopitar, Brown, and Alex Iafallo spent 656 minutes together)? While there’s no statistic that measures Finding Joy In Your Job Again Once You Have A New Boss, it seems that a new coach, one who believed that his top players could turn their games around, freed players like Brown and Kopitar to be their best selves.

Is the rejuvenated career of the once and former captain going to be something that Dustin Brown can repeat? The magic of the four goal game probably has been used up by now, and we probably shouldn’t expect Brown’s shooting percentage to stay at 12.6% — his highest since the 2012-13 season and far above his career average of 9.5%. Kopitar is another story entirely; while his 17.5% shooting percentage is due for a correction, he’s spent his entire career in the 10-15% range, save for the 2016-17 season. Even if Kopitar’s shooting regresses, if he continues taking more shots (200 in 2018-19), he’ll be in good shape for another 20-30 goal season. And if Kopitar and Brown can develop some much-anticipated chemistry with Ilya Kovalchuk, then there’s no telling what kind of damage that first line could do. (Sorry, Alex Iafallo.)

So, sorry. The rumors of the demise of Brown and Kopitar were far overstated. Both players exorcised some demons last season, proving to their doubters, and probably most importantly to themselves, that they are still both, in their own ways, the heartbeat of this team.