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Hockey

Column: Kings need to find out who’s in and who’s out

Kings right wing Dustin Brown looks on during a game on March 16, 2019.
Kings right wing Dustin Brown looks on during a game on March 16, 2019.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Dustin Brown has seen this movie before, the one in which the Kings are a bad team going through a long and often painful climb toward Stanley Cup contention.

Brown, drafted 13th by the Kings in 2003, played a key role in lifting them to the top of the hockey mountain in 2012 and again in 2014 as he matured into a physical force alongside defenseman Drew Doughty, center Anze Kopitar, and goaltender Jonathan Quick. But there’s a price for success in the salary cap-governed NHL and the Kings are paying it as they try to transform themselves from a veteran-driven team to a faster group whose young players can accept the scoring and leadership batons from the aging Cup-winning core.

That transition has been tricky: Forwards Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli once were regarded as future franchise pillars but Pearson was traded in 2018 and Toffoli has been the subject of many rumors leading up to the Feb. 24 trade deadline. His power-play goal on Saturday might have enhanced his value. Who, then, is the next Kopitar, the next Brown, the next Doughty?

“Eventually that’s the questions that need to be answered internally,” Brown said on Saturday before goals by Max Jones, Derek Grant, and Jacob Larsson led the Ducks to a 3-1 victory over the Kings at Staples Center. “I want to keep playing as long as I can, but eventually there’s going to have to be guys that are going to be the next crop of guys that are going to be able to take this team to the next level.”

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The first time Brown went through this he was a kid and a disruptive physical force. He’s 35 now and not nearly as productive or physical as he was. Looking at the big picture, though, he sees parallels between the buildup to the Cup successes and the stage the Kings have reached.

Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson pays tribute to Kobe Bryant and the others lost in Calabasas helicopter crash with a specially designed mask.

“We’re further along in this process than I think we were the first time we went through it,” he said. “We’ve lost a lot of one-goal games. We’re one mistake worse than a lot of teams. You go back, you always compare it to when you won, and we just didn’t make as many mistakes as a collective group. The last few games we lost by one goal we made a bad pinch here and a bad read. We were making those 10 years ago and then all of a sudden we stopped making those and we were a really good team. So I think that’s the best attitude to have.”

He’s encouraged by the Kings’ recent structure and stability, advances that aren’t always reflected in their results. Playing for the third straight game without the injured Doughty — he’s expected to return Tuesday at Washington — the Kings fell to 19-29-5 for 43 points. After the same number of games last season they were 22-27-4 for 48 points.

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Brown was surprised to learn their record is worse than at the same point last season.

“The reason it feels different is we’re in every game,” Brown said. “We’re not winning them. We’ve got to learn how to win them. But last year if we gave up two in the first, the game was over. There wasn’t any coming back. There wasn’t any fight in our game.”

Kopitar also was surprised that the Kings’ record is worse than it was after 53 games last season.

“I feel — not I feel, I know — that we play a lot better hockey this year than we did last year,” said Kopitar, who set up Toffoli’s goal, the game’s final score, at 17:21 of the second period. “We are a lot more competitive. The no-quit attitude is always there as opposed to last year. It was a lot different. We’re in games but I don’t know how many one-goal games we lost [14] but that’s part of growth. We’ve been through that about 10 years ago and the personnel changed a lot and we’ve got to learn to win those one-goal games again.”

Brown’s season-best five-game point streak ended Saturday, but he had a presence and was credited with six of the Kings’ 47 shots on Ducks goalie Ryan Miller, in addition to two hits. Brown had struggled through early December, feeling ill but playing through it, until he woke up Christmas Day and felt sick enough to go to the hospital. He was diagnosed with pneumonia and missed four games. It took him nearly two weeks to get back to normal.

“It’s wanting to do things and literally not having the energy to go in the corner or beat a guy to the puck. Just a body battle,” he said. “It was frustrating internally knowing it’s just going to be this way until my body recovers. The doc told me you’re going to feel fine but you’re not going to feel good for a while.”

It has been rare over the shared history of the Ducks and the Kings that they’d play a game that has no real playoff implications, but they’re both well behind the pack in the Western Conference. In pondering that, Brown mentioned his admiration for former Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, who never missed the playoffs in his NHL career.

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“That’s a sick, crazy stat, but I wouldn’t trade how things have gone here and anybody who says otherwise is lying to you,” Brown said. “We won, and now it’s trying to start over again.”

He hopes to make a meaningful contribution as the Kings continue their evolution.

“I want to keep playing as long as I can but I want to be on a good team as well, so it’s finding ways to help the younger guys get better,” he said. “The big thing is that next group coming. None of us guys is getting any younger. ...We need some guys to start taking the team over, eventually.”

The wait continues.


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