March 27, 2018 | 11:57am ET
BY Dennis Bernstein, The Fourth Period
A LONG JOURNEY BACK
LOS ANGELES, CA -- What a difference a year makes.
This time last season, Los Angeles Kings right wing Dustin Brown was concluding another disappointing season, along with him team – the Kings had spit the bit in the stretch and were coasting home to an eventual 10th place finish that, unbeknownst to him, would be the start of a change of fortune for him.
It did not appear things were moving in that direction when the final horn of Game 82 sounded, but in a swift and stunning move, ownership deconstructed the leadership team that brought the two and only Stanley Cup championships to Los Angeles and unfortunately for Dustin, believed he was no more than a bottom-six winger and his best days were behind him.
If you’ve followed this column regularly these past few seasons, you know I have made it personal with Dustin Brown; I have been welcomed into his home, am considered a family friend and knew how deeply out of favour he had fallen (without any actual explanation for it to this day) with Darryl Sutter, who was backed by Dean Lombardi on his stance throughout.
The mere fact that this player, who had given everything he had for this organization since he was a teenager, was treated like a pariah in the former regime’s final seasons was a crime.
So, when the reigns were given to Luc Robitaille and Rob Blake, if nothing more it was addition by subtraction. The air of negativity around the organization had engulfed the team in the final weeks of last season and it showed in its collective effort – lifeless and lackluster play from a team who was once the definition of clutch.
Even with Lombardi and Sutter gone, the whispers of Brown’s last days as a King would not stop through the post-season. Given his offensive production over multiple seasons, Brown’s cap hit and remaining term on his contract made him unmovable (well, I guess Blake showed us that if you’re motivated enough, you can move a contract – see Gaborik, Marian). The trade options weren’t there, but the Expansion Draft was and privately, there was some thought in the Brown camp who thought being picked by the Vegas Golden Knights would not have been a bad thing – proximity to LA, no state income tax and above all, a fresh start for a career that moved and stayed south.
But like the other 30 NHL GMs, Vegas GM George McPhee did not have the appetite to digest Brown’s contract despite the notoriety and leadership that an American who was a two-time Stanley Cup championship captain would bring to the new franchise. Maybe because McPhee himself didn’t believe, like the rest of us, that the Miracle in the Desert could happen, so he chose to pluck the younger defenseman in Brayden McNabb than the player who would have been a layup to be Vegas’ first captain.
As fate would have it, Brown’s fresh start wound up being in his own backyard.
Maybe it was because two Hall of Famers with their numbers in the rafters – who privately has disdain for the way Brown had been treated – were running the show or maybe it was because John Stevens personality is 180 degrees from Sutter’s, but fortunately for the organization and the player, a renewed commitment to Brown was made. He was reunited with Anze Kopitar, who was coming off a season of criticism himself as the new captain with a $10 million cap hit, in the hopes of recovering the magic they created in the championship seasons.
It’s not yet a storybook ending because the Kings’ inconsistent March makes the return to the post-season an uncertainty, but the pair have produced a Hart Trophy candidacy for Anze and a Masterton Trophy nomination for Brown.
The formal press release reads as follows:
Dustin Brown named Los Angeles Kings PHWA 2018 Masterton Trophy nominee
Brown receives his first nomination for the award in his 13th season with the franchise
LOS ANGELES -- March 27, 2018: The Los Angeles chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association (PHWA) on Tuesday announced that forward Dustin Brown is the Kings' nominee for the 2018 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy.
The Masterton Trophy is awarded annually by the PHWA to honor the late Bill Masterton, a player for the Minnesota North Stars who exhibited qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to ice hockey before he died on January 15, 1968, as the result of an on-ice injury.
Brown is in the midst of his best offensive campaign since 2011-’12 season. After a disappointing 14 goal, 22 assist, 2016-’17 season there was heavy off-season speculation that Brown had played his last game for Los Angeles and would depart either by trade or the 2017 Expansion Draft but there was no interest from other teams. The Kings’ new leadership regime led by General Manager Rob Blake and Coach John Stevens made a renewed commitment to Brown, reuniting him with center Anze Kopitar on the Kings’ top line at the start of the season. Brown has responded with 23 goals, 32 assists and a team-leading +28 rating, reestablishing him as a key core player in the Kings drive towards the post-season.
Brown appeared his 1,000th NHL game on Dec. 28 to become the third player to play 1,000 games with the Kings and 317th player in league history to reach the mark. He joined Dave Taylor as the second player to play his first 1,000 games in a Kings uniform.
I spoke with Brown after the Kings victory over the Calgary Flames on Monday and while he was honoured to receive the designation, he was deferential about the nomination. He referenced former Masterton winners like Craig Anderson and Dominic Moore and another current nominee Brian Boyle as those who have overcome far more significant challenges than him.
“It’s an honour to be nominated for the award,” Brown said, “but you look at a guy like Brian Boyle – I see what he been going through and it’s really hard to compare. I’ve just had a bad few years and now I’ve had a good year and it’s a by-product of being a being with a great group of guys and I haven’t had to go through anything tough personally.
“What I have gone through pales in comparison to what others who have won the award like Craig Anderson has experienced. I’ve been given the new opportunity here and have taken advantage of it. I’m up for the same award as Brian – he is dealing with cancer, I’m playing hockey and dealing with things that didn’t go my way.”
If you know anything about Dustin Brown, the man – not the villain that some make him out to be – you’re not surprised at his response.
Make no mistake, Brown will not win the Masterton Trophy – though nominated by our chapter, which I lead. I don’t plan to vote for him, but he is one who always promotes others first and minimizes his own good work (he has won the NHL Foundation Award in the past) as our relationship has grown, he is the one that promotes others successes and defers his own accomplishments.
Though he is right about the degree of depth of challenges that today’s other nominees have gone through, it doesn’t minimize the struggles he’s had and how he’s persevered to return to a player of prominence for the only team he’s known for his entire professional life and that is why he is worthy of being including in the circle of nominees for this special award.