Two things stand out when one meets Dustin Brown.
First, he is so mellow and soft spoken that you wouldn’t expect him to be an NHL player. Second, he appears much larger than the 6-foot-0, 200-pound player listed in the 2007-08 Los Angeles Kings’ media guide.
Brown’s progression as one of the NHL’s top power forwards has been remarkably steady while going relatively unnoticed to even the most knowledgeable hockey fan not living in Southern California.
Perhaps most amazing is that Brown, whose size is average by today’s NHL standards, led the league with 311 hits this past season after finishing second last season with 258 hits. All those hits were delivered while Brown skated on the Kings’ top line, led the team with 33 goals, played in all situations and finished second among all Kings’ forwards with more than 20 minutes of time-on-ice per game.
A native of Ithaca, N.Y., Brown’s dream at an early age was to play college hockey, which is only natural when Cornell University sits in your backyard. His parents emphasized education early on, and Brown excelled in the classroom. But when he realized following his freshman year in high school that college hockey was still three years away, his goals changed.
Brown jumped at the chance to play for the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey Association. Not only did he star on the ice, averaging 33 goals and 65 points in each of his three seasons in Guelph, he excelled in the classroom as well, capturing the league’s Scholastic Player of the Year award three straight years.
Brown’s physical game also developed north of the border.
“In my second or third year, I started hitting more,” Brown recalls. “It’s not an easy thing to do, but I had a knack for it. A lot of it is timing, but once I learned how to do it, it was something I could bring to the game every night.”
That was all the Kings’ scouting staff needed to see, selecting Brown as the 13th overall pick in the loaded 2003 NHL Entry Draft.
When ankle injuries limited him to only 31 games in the 2003-04 season, the Kings’ management decided to keep Brown with the AHL Manchester Monarchs to develop his overall game. While his physical game was NHL ready, his scoring skills needed some fine-tuning.
“In my first year, I wasn’t looked upon as an offensive guy,” Brown says. “I needed to find a way to stay with the Kings, so playing physical helped fill the void.”
In his first full NHL season in 2005-06, Brown contributed 28 points and 175 hits in 79 games, a significant contribution for a 21-year-old rising star.
“With each year of experience you learn a lot about the game at this level,” Brown notes. “When you begin to score at this level it gives you the confidence to do it every night and then it builds upon itself.”
That confidence continued to blossom early in the 2006-07 season when Brown was paired up with a 19-year-old rookie sensation named Anze Kopitar. The two have been inseparable ever since.
With Kopitar’s help, Brown improved in all major categories, scoring 17 goals and 46 points in 81 games, along with his 258 hits, more than twice as many as any other teammate. Brown’s time-on-ice average also jumped to nearly 19 minutes a game. Solid defensively, he also led all Kings forwards on shorthanded on-ice-time. Still, some members of the Kings’ organization wondered aloud if Brown would ever reach the 30-goal plateau.
That question has now been answered, as Brown emerged as one of the top young players in the game. With career highs in all categories again in 2007-08, Brown scored 33 goals and 60 points. He also played significant minutes on both the power play and the penalty kill units. Brown’s league leading 311 hits were 45 more than anyone else in the NHL. Of the NHL’s top 10 hitters in 2007-08, only Alexander Ovechkin scored more than Brown.
As a power forward, Brown’s role on the Kings’ power play is to take a pounding in the slot, deflect shots from the points and get to the rebounds.
“In my second or third year, I started hitting more. It’s not an easy thing to do, but I had a knack for it.”
“Dustin has tremendous hands around the net,” says Kings’ head coach Marc Crawford. “His willingness to stand in the crease to provide a screen and create space for the other guys is as good as anyone in the league.”
In evaluating Brown’s play, Crawford adds, “In each of his first three full seasons in the NHL, he has taken a significant step each and every year. Dustin is now at the point where he is very confident with the puck. He has an overpowering game, his shot is heavy and extremely accurate, and his physical presence has continued to flourish. Opposition defensemen are now leery of him on every shift not only because of his bodychecking but because of his abilities.”
Still only 23, Brown is already a five-time veteran of U.S. National Teams, having played in the World Junior Championships in 2002 and 2003, and the World Championships in 2004, 2006 and again this year.
Brown was the youngest member of the 2002 World Junior team before helping the U.S. to their first gold medal in the 2003 World Junior tournament. In the 2006 World Senior tournament, Brown led the team with five goals and seven points. Post-season surgery on his mouth and a wedding date prevented Brown from playing in 2007.
Once the Kings were eliminated from the playoffs, Brown was again looking forward to representing the U.S. at the Worlds this year. Based on his rapid improvement in the NHL and his solid contributions to USA Hockey in past years, many feel that Brown is a good bet to line up for the U.S. at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Jim Fox, the Kings’ TV commentator, is among those who see a bright future for Brown, both in a Kings uniform as well as wearing the Stars and Stripes of Team USA.
“I think he can be a mainstay with USA Hockey and play in two or three Olympic Games,” says Fox, who has had a bird’s eye view of Brown’s development. “I don’t know of many guys that have all the assets that Dustin brings.”
Jim Stevens is a freelance writer based in southern California.
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