Brown and Kopitar are latest homegrown Cup tandemby Corey Masisak
LOS ANGELES -- Many recent Stanley Cup champions have had one thing in common -- two star forwards who were drafted by the organization and grew up together in the NHL.
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, even dating further back to guys like Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis or Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg -- there has been something of a buddy system up front for lots of title-winning clubs.
They have been together as teammates since Kopitar arrived at the start of the 2006-07 season, and they've been linemates for a large portion of the past five years. They've ascended to the team's top line and become integral players, both on and off the ice, for a franchise that captured the Stanley Cup for the first time in its 45 years of existence.
"I don't know if there is a time when we both thought that [we'd be front and center of this], but we both understood for this organization to be where we're at today, it had to come from within the organization," Brown said. "It wasn't going to come from making three or four big trades. In order to take the next step as an organization, the players here had to take the next step. At the end of the day, I think our players that have been here for a while have gotten better every year."
Brown was a first-round pick in 2003 and played in the NHL as a 19-year-old before spending the 2004-05 season in the American Hockey League during the NHL work stoppage. His first full NHL season came in 2005-06, which was also Kopitar's last in Europe after being a first-round selection by the Kings the previous summer.
Both players had breakout years in 2007-08. Kopitar had 32 goals and 77 points in his second NHL season, while Brown had had a career-high 33 goals and 60 points. After a slight dip the next season, Kopitar has had at least 73 points in each season since, while Brown has had four straight years of between 53 and 57 points.
If the 2011-12 regular season was slightly disappointing for both (22 goals for Brown and 25 for Kopitar), this postseason has been another breakout of sorts for both -- they are now the two leading scorers on a Stanley Cup champion.
Both players finished with the exact same totals -- eight goals, 12 assists, 20 points and a plus-16 rating. Brown was the offensive linchpin for the Kings early in the postseason, scoring four goals against Vancouver in the first round and collecting 11 points in the first 10 games. Kopitar was been the offensive leader as the finish line approached, but Brown took over in the clinching game, scoring the game-opening goal on the power play and then adding a pair of assists.
"It is a lot easier to play with someone on the ice when you're good friends off the ice," Brown said. "Me and Anze have been pretty close pretty much since the day he got here. We were both young guys coming up, and we've played together for our whole careers. The more time we have spent together, the easier it is to go after the same things."
Added Kopitar: "We have been playing together for about five years. For a little bit, I had been playing with Ryan [Smyth] and Dustin for one year. But, you know, ever since Ryan went away, I think we've played together with Justin [Williams]. We can't forget about him. You need three guys to attack. I think as of right now we have our chemistry going. It's extremely important to have three guys clicking and knowing where you're going to be on the ice, just reading off each other."
Kopitar was the best player who doesn't wear goalie pads in this Final, scoring critical goals in Games 1 and 3 to assert Los Angeles' early control on the series. He's always been on the fringes of discussions about the elite centers in the League, but this postseason will put him squarely in the middle of those chats -- right alongside guys like Crosby, Malkin, Datsyuk, Toews, Claude Giroux, and Steven Stamkos.
He might not have the offensive numbers (during the regular season) of guys like Crosby, Malkin and Stamkos, but Kopitar's work at the defensive end has helped him evolve into a dominant, 200-foot player the caliber of Datsyuk and Toews.
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"He's one of the best two-way centermen in the entire League," defenseman Drew Doughty said. "Playing out West, he doesn't get the same recognition the top centers in the East get -- it is not even close. I think he's better than so many guys in the League. He's unbelievable, and people don't realize how much he means to this team, and how much he does. He does it all. He blocks shots, he works hard on the backcheck and he puts pucks in the net -- just an unbelievable player."
Added Brown: "The offensive side has always been there and is getting better, but his physical strength off the ice, his awareness in the corners -- I remember in my first couple years he'd go into the corners and kind of get knocked around a bit. Now he goes into the corner and comes out with the puck every time. That's the biggest difference."
Brown has become one of the League's top power forwards. He scores goals and will hit people -- a lot. He's finished in the top three in the League in hits in each of the past six NHL seasons.
He's also grown into the role of captain. He was the youngest in franchise history when he accepted the job on Oct. 8, 2008; he's now is one of three finalists for the 2012 Mark Messier Leadership Award.
Both Brown and Kopitar have become part of the leadership group in Los Angeles, both on and off the ice.
"With hockey, you just learn as you go," Williams said. "You either become that leader, or you don't and you regress. They've been able to push forward, and do what they said they could do. That just comes with experience and getting in this situation and seeing what you're made of. They've done a great job."
Brown signed a six-year, $19.05 million contract extension in October 2007 that still has two more seasons left after this one. Kopitar inked a seven-year pact that runs through the 2015-16 campaign.
They have grown from prospects to stars, and from kids trying to make it in the NHL to men. Lifting the Stanley Cup is not the conclusion of this journey together, but it is the culmination of years of hard work, development and friendship.
"It has been a long road," Brown said. "We added pieces along the way, and we've gotten that core group I think. Starting with the trade for [Matt Greene] and [Jarret Stoll] was when we started growing that core. For me personally, I've been a King my whole career and [Kopitar] as well. It is a special time."
Added Kopitar: "I remember meeting him, and he didn't say much. I was pretty shy at that time, too, and scared at the same time because it was the first time [here] for me. We've kind of bonded as the years went along. As soon as the rebuilding started, we realized that most likely there would be a huge load on us. We've accepted that challenge and it has been working pretty well."