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L.A. State of Mind

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings
Central New York will always be home to Dustin Brown. It’s where he was born and raised, where he met his wife, where he still retreats for a while every summer to spend time with family and friends.

At the same time, there’s a lot of Southern California in Brown. It’s where he has set down roots during an eight-year career with the Kings, where his three sons were born, where he and his wife have invested much time and money into charity ventures. Imagine then, how stressful Twitter was for Brown last month.

For a few days, in advance of the trade deadline, Brown couldn’t avoid reading his name, as reputable hockey reporters posted items indicating, to various degrees, that the Kings would entertain the idea of trading their captain. Brown, a model of stability for the Kings since before he turned 19, suddenly didn’t know if, four days later, he would be playing in Los Angeles, Toronto, Vancouver or somewhere in between.

The Feb. 27 trade deadline passed, and Brown remained with the Kings.  He also just happens, coincidentally or not, to be in the middle of a huge scoring run. Brown has six goals and five assists in his last seven games, and has pulled into a tie with Anze Kopitar for the team high in goals, with 19.

``I’m not sure if those trade rumors, so to speak, bothered him or not,’’ center Jarret Stoll said. ``I couldn’t tell, personally, but he definitely put all those to rest by the way he is playing the game.’’

Brown, a natural right winger, has been holding down the first-line left-wing spot, and has been productive. Brown hasn’t forced the issue, but several times this season he has pointed out to reporters that he feels like he is more of a threat with the puck when skating up the left wing. The numbers prove it.

The question, one that really has no discernible answer, is: did the trade deadline motivate Brown? Did it scare him? Did it anger him, and push him to a new level in order to show that he shouldn’t be dealt?

``I might have been just a coincidence, really,’’ Brown said this week. ``It’s a business. It’s not my first time that it’s been out there. It’s one of those things where you just kind of have to deal with it as a player. It’s pretty easy, coming to the rink and playing.
It’s more away from the rink, because you can’t stop thinking about it. Now that the trade deadline is over, and I said this before, it’s my responsibility, as a player, not to worry about what’s being said, trade-wise. It’s my responsibility to get ready to play games.’’

Given the economics of pro sports, and the frequency with which top players change teams, either through free agency or trades, it’s never a total shock to hear a player’s name floated in trade reports.

Hearing Brown’s name, though, was as close to a shock as it comes.

The Kings drafted Brown in the first round in 2003. They signed him to a six-year contract extension, one that will carry him through the 2013-14 season. In 2008, they made him the 15th captain in team history.

So, the evening of Feb. 23 should have been an exciting one for Brown.  He learned that the Kings had traded for Jeff Carter, a former 40-goal scorer who presumably would boost the Kings’ league-worst offense.

Within a couple hours, though, came a report, from TSN’s Bob McKenzie, that the Kings were also entertaining offers for Brown. Brown said he wife, Nicole, tracked the reports through Twitter.

Kings general manager Dean Lombardi quickly put out word to reporters that the Kings were not ``shopping’’ Brown to teams, but notably did not say, outright, that the Kings would not trade Brown.

That left Brown in an awkward spot. The next day, he did a stand-up job of sitting patiently at his locker as media members fired questions about the trade reports. Brown calmly, stoically, gave honest answers, betraying no bitterness. He easily could have lashed out, but didn’t.

Actually, Brown did lash out. Against the Chicago Blackhawks. Two days after the trade reports surfaced, Brown recorded his first hat trick of the season. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not, but the scoring burst seemed to finalize that Brown wouldn’t be moving anywhere. Two days later, the trade deadline passed quietly and Brown, to his relief, remained a member the Kings.

``Coming up to the deadline, I think it’s just a tense time for everyone involved: players, teams, everyone,’’ Brown said. ``The media, all they’re talking about is trade deadline, trade deadline, trade deadline. We made a trade a few days before, and we were quiet at the deadline. Now it’s like guys are starting to settle it, and it’s almost like getting back to a bit of normalcy in your routine.’’

Brown rarely has difficulty with that part of the game. He is nothing if not consistent, a quiet leader and a tireless worker. Never the most vocal of players, Brown commands respect because of his honest work. Teammates say that never wavered, even when it would have been understandable for his focus to waver a bit.

``It’s his attitude, his attitude during the game,’’ Stoll said. ``You can tell, in his mindset and his attitude when he comes to the rink, he means business. He’s there to win and play hard, and it’s great to see the pucks going in the net for him now, because he deserves it.’’

Just before his scoring breakthrough, Brown went through a prolonged slump, as he went 11 games without a goal. Toward the end of that drought, coach Darryl Sutter publicly called out Brown and Kopitar, saying that they had become ``stale’’ on the same line together.

Sutter challenged Brown to, essentially, go back to this roots, as a hard-charging, straight-line player who thrived around going to net and battling for pucks. Of late, Brown has been back on script.

``Just probably my focus to details, getting around the net,’’ Brown said, when asked about differences in his game of late. ``Our D getting pucks to the net is a big help. A lot of our forwards, if you see our goals lately, in Minnesota it was point shots and a couple goals that were from the crease. There haven’t been all that many highlight-reel goals, or pretty goals.

``Here and there, they’re sprinkled in, but the majority of our goals lately, we’ve been scoring more than we have over the course of the year and it’s just guys getting to the net. It’s one to get guys around the net. It’s another thing to get guys around the net with the puck getting there at the same time. That’s been the biggest difference.’’

Sutter also took Brown off the first power-play unit, and the arrival of Carter -- and, by extension, the emergence of a more-threatening second line -- has perhaps opened things up more for Brown.

``He’s in different situations,’’ Sutter said. ``Maybe that’s better for him. It’s a good challenge for him.’’

Brown isn’t likely to back down from the challenge. With 16 games remaining in the regular season, the Kings find themselves narrowly out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference, with a tough portion of the schedule still to come.

Brown, if only for a fleeting moment, caught a glimpse of what life outside a Kings uniform might be like. With the trade deadline now happily in his rear-view mirror, Brown can get back on task.

``For this team, coming down the stretch, it’s about preparation and being ready to play,’’ Brown said. ``We can’t have one of those games where we’re not ready at the start or we’re not playing our `A’ game.

“Everyone is going to have ups and downs, but it’s important for us to understand and recognize those early on and, if we’re not feeling it, to do all those little things right, to be successful in tight games.’’
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