What's Broken (part 2): Follow the Leader

Part One is here.

Player evaluation: Brown - LA Kings Insider

Per usual, Brown gave 100-percent effort in every game and regularly led the Kings in both shots on goal and hits. A lead-by-example captain, Brown has total respect in the locker room.

If you couldn't tell from part one (link above), I believe the pattern of (sometimes historic) collapses shown by this Kings' team over the last two seasons must end. We no longer have the luxury of calling these collapses "uncharacteristic." My knee-jerk reaction: it's a failure of leadership: captains and coaches.

But knee-jerk doesn't equal true.

So here's the exercise. I'm going to make a list of the arguable solutions, and then I'm going to take my best shot at arguing each one. I put that in bold in order to discourage people from commenting that (a) I'm a total ******* and/or (b) my arguments all contradict each other and/or (c) my arguments contradict everything I have ever said, and/or (d) how can you say that about so-and-so!?

(but feel free; it's a blog.)

Yes, it's a little like the lawyer who says, "my client was 100 miles away at the time, and, if you don't buy that, it was self-defense."

Here are all the solutions that come to mind:

  1. Change nothing. The team will grow together, and next time they're on top of the world (ahead 4-0 in a playoff game, or #1 in the league in the standings) they won't fall apart, because they have learned.
  2. Get a new coach. It's the coach's job to right the ship when it starts to capsize. As Lombardi said (quote and link in previous post), Detroit doesn't go 0-9. They stop the bleeding.
  3. Get a new captain. Being captain causes Brown to try to do too much, and he obviously has not been able to "right the ship" in several instances.
  4. Get better players. The reason for these collapses is not the fault of the captain or the coaches, all of whom have been doing the best they can with the hand they're dealt. The team has been playing above its abilities, and while that's been a minor miracle, it can't go on forever. The collapses are the point in the story when the coyote realizes he's running in mid-air, 1000 feet up.

In this post, we pick on captains.

Everybody loves Dustin Brown. I love Dustin Brown. Pretty much every time I get frustrated with Dustin Brown for trying to skate through 12 guys, or turning over the puck on the cycle, or shooting 12 feet over the net, or whatever crazy thing, he turns around and scores a beautiful goal, or otherwise causes some game-changing event to occur.

But that's DB, the player. What about Captain DB?

He's had to learn this captaining gig on the fly. I cut him a lot of slack for that reason, but -- as you probably know from posts going back two or three years -- I've frequently been nervous about Brown as a captain. This is mostly not his fault. You can't be a persuasive leader in a situation where you have no experience. It's like that scene in Aliens, when they're doing a military-style landing on the bug planet, and Ripley asks the head marine how many of these missions he's done, and he says, "seventeen...all simulated."

My idea of the ideal captain is that he's a guy who, when you happen to be freaking out about whatever new or terrifying situation you find yourself in, you can turn to him and he will settle you down because he's been there before and he knows the drill. Even the best and most natural leader in the world is not going to be able to instill much confidence if you know in the back of your mind that he's never done this before, either.

Reading Hammond's evaluation of Brown (link before the jump), and the comments that followed, I was struck by how universal the praise is of his leadership. It was also noted in those comments -- and I totally agree with this -- that we have no idea what goes on in "the room." We can't really know what kind of leader DB is; we can't know whether is capable of rousing the troops, of calming nerves, of doing those things we expect of great leaders.

The problem with not being in the room is that all we have to go on is (1) what he says in the press, (2) how he handles himself on the ice, and (3) how the team plays. Of those three, I only really have issues with #3. I am not inspired by his public post-game presentation, but I allow for the possibility that he's totally different in the locker room.

I have to put a lot of stock in Hammond's comment, quoted above, that Brown commands total respect in the locker room. I would just note that this quality may be, as they say, "necessary but not sufficient."

Certain guys -- Messier, Lidstrom, Yzerman, Pronger, Sakic, Stevens -- have something that makes you want to follow them into battle. Does Brown have what those guys have? Kind of an unfair question, since those are all Hall of Famers, or future ones. It's also an unfair question because those guys all had massive experience to fall back on, whereas Brown doesn't.

Maybe DB will be as great a leader as those guys when he's been at it for 10 years. But that's part of the problem. By the time he has that number of years on his resume, who on this Kings roster will be left?

Don't get me wrong. I actually do think Brown is heroic (per the "follow me into battle" metaphor), in that he's a tireless worker and a truly decent human being. Those are guys you love as teammates, guys you wish you had more of. As a "lead by example" type of captain, he sets the bar very high with his admirable work ethic, his energy, his "compete" level, and, for lack of a better term, his character.

Except that he does seem to come unglued when things go south. As Rich Hammond pointed out in his evaluation, he tries to do too much. He forces things. Is that a good thing for the leader to do when the road gets bumpy? What do his teammates do when they see Brown forcing his play? What happens to our vaunted defensive system when players start forcing, start trying to do too much?

Is this not exactly the thing that Terry Murray pointed out after last week's playoff meltdowns?

Glass Half Empty: too bad there's no such thing as stepping up - Jewels From The Crown

MURRAY: "The series is 3-1. I look at it as a self-inflicted issue right now. [...][T]hose goals against are plays that basically we hand to them through breakdowns and reads that have been made all year long. That's a part of the game that we have taken a lot of pride in over the last three years, is to be a good, solid defensive hockey club, to do things the right way all of the time, as a team. So when I say I need players to play good, I need them to play the right way. We don't need to have any one player, two players, feel that they need to put the whole thing on their shoulders and play extra-special, because that's when problems start to come back at you and comes right back down our throat."

Add to that, this, from Hammond's evaluation of Brown:

Player evaluation: Brown " LA Kings Insider

The flip side of Brown's scoring bursts is his tendency to go cold for long stretches. Brown had one eight-game stretch without a goal and one 11-game stretch without a goal. That can happen to the best of players, but throughout this career, Brown has shown the tendency to start pressing, in all aspects of his game, when the scoring runs dry for a stretch. He's never guilty of a lack of effort, but sometimes excessive effort can lead to a lack of productive play.

Pressing. I think you can also apply that description to Doughty, Johnson, Kopitar, Greene, and others I'm sure. But Brown is the captain. The lead-by-example captain. A lead-by-example captain whose example, at least in this one crucial area, we shouldn't really follow.

Not to pick entirely on Brown here. Kopitar, Greene and Stoll are alt captains and part of the leadership group. And they, like Brown, seem to be of the good-guy/hard-worker variety (I'm not addressing skill here; just character; obviously Kopitar has skills others don't have). Do any of them have the natural or earned authority to lead in the sense of "once more unto the breach"?

Put a pin in that.

Who on the Kings evinced the least amount of discipline in the last playoff series? With his several costly ill-timed penalties, I would say it was Matt Greene. Certainly, Greene(r) was playing more intense, stepping it up, etc. Did it help? And what was the effect of that on the rest of the team, since these guys are the lead-by-example type?

It has been noted (see the first comment in part one of this series of posts) that the coach can't really control the players on the ice. I don't agree, actually, but let's pretend. If not the coach, then certainly the captains have some influence on the rest of the team. Especially the kids, for instance, Doughty and Johnson, neither of whom seemed especially composed in that series. Certainly, as I have said before, I feel those two (and Brown) were trying to put the team on their shoulders, were taking on too much, and in so doing, drifted away from the system. Could Brown and/or Greene (or Lidstrom or Neidermayer) have kept them in line, with a few choice words about "how it's done in the playoffs"? That's the kind of situation where experience pays dividends.

Maybe we're all just supposed to wait while we watch the young'uns log their needed playoff experience in real time. But it occurs to me that (per this post on the Kings cap situation) the Kings are no longer that bunch of crazy kids with cap space to burn. They will be, starting in a few short weeks, pressed right up against the cap ceiling. Doughty, Simmonds, Johnson, Brown and Kopitar will each have multi-millionaire grown-up contracts, and it would be reasonable to expect them to earn their $20,000,000.

(tick, tock)

You might have noticed I've spent all my time defining the problem, but haven't offered even a hint of a solution. That's because I don't like any of the solutions. I don't like the idea of importing pre-fab captains from elsewhere via trade or signing. That would be especially problematic on a mostly home-grown Kings team. I also don't like the idea of stripping Brown's C off him. It worked for Patrick Marleau, but that Sharks team was in a different situation.

Still, if we were starting from scratch, today, with no history and no hurt feelings, I think the Kings would be better served by giving the C to Rob Scuderi. Just typing that makes me a little more calm. Even though part of me is still rooting for Brown to grow into the role, as we all have been rooting for him, for the last three years. The problem being, we pretty much need that from him, yesterday.

[Next up: screw that, it's all the coach's fault.]