Anze Kopitar is officially the new captain of the Los Angeles Kings. And while the news can't help but cast a spotlight on the former captain, Dustin Brown, GM Dean Lombardi maintains that the move is part of the franchise's evolution.
"It's Anze's time for it," Lombardi said. "He's been bred for it, he's been trained for it and he's one of our best players."
Kopitar's skills cannot be debated. He is one of the best players in the NHL today thanks to his great two-way game and he led the team in scoring this past season by a considerable margin. But most importantly, he's part of a core Lombardi believes is ready for the next step.
"When Dustin took over, we were a very bad team," Lombardi said. "We only had a couple good young players and Dustin was brought in to be captain."
Brown was just turning 24 when he got the 'C' in 2008-09 and over the years Lombardi surrounded him with veterans such as Justin Williams, Mike Richards, Jarret Stoll and Rob Scuderi. In the meantime, youngsters such as Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick and Jake Muzzin came along and were sheltered from leadership duties in favor of development. All four helped the Kings win two Stanley Cups (except Muzzin, who has one ring) and they learned how to win in the process. Now it's their time to take over.
"Dustin did a tremendous job," Lombardi said. "If they follow half of what he did, they'll win (another) Cup. I don't think they were ready two or three years ago, but now is their time."
It is a crucial time for the Kings, too. Once-mighty Los Angeles now has just one playoff series to its name in the past two seasons and has gone through the ringer with the arrests of Stoll, Richards and Slava Voynov in a short window of time. Lombardi acknowledged that his roster had some holes this season, but the mental side of the game also weighed on the team. Losing to San Jose in the first round was a "good punch in the nose," he said and it's not hard to imagine a refocused L.A. team next year.
But on top of Kopitar's leadership role evolving with the 'C,' Lombardi also hoped the shift in responsibilities will help Brown, as well. The stocky right winger hasn't hit 30 points since before the most recent lockout and that just won't do for a guy who used to consistently flirt with 60. Now, without the captaincy, he only has to be responsible for himself and not his 20-plus teammates as well.
"For us to be successful, he needs to get his game back to what he is capable of," Lombardi said. "Not long ago, he was one of the best power forwards in the league. And it's not the effort – he puts enormous pressure on himself. "
Lombardi said he is not planning on buying out Brown's contract and still thinks the 31-year-old has some prime years left. Whether or not that is objectively true, the GM is at least giving Brown the benefit of the doubt and perhaps hedging against the loss of free agent power forward Milan Lucic. While both sides want to see Lucic back in black next season, the cap space just may not be there.
In the meantime, the Kings still have one of the best goalies in the game in Quick, one of the best defensemen in Doughty and one of the best centers in Kopitar. If they can help get the dressing room back on track, it's not hard to see Los Angeles make another deep charge through the playoffs next season.