Kings’ decision to make Dustin Brown ‘important guy’ paying off

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MONTREAL–For the better part of the last decade, the Los Angeles Kings have been known for their defensive style of play. That’s the way former head coach Darryl Sutter liked to run things. Now, under new head coach John Stevens, things have changed quite a bit. The team still prides itself on playing good defensive hockey, but they also haven’t been shy about making plays at the other end of the rink.

Heading into Thursday’s game in Montreal, the Kings find themselves tied for fifth in the league in goals scored with 32 (their 19 goals against is tied for top spot). By comparison, the Kings were 25th in goals last season, 14th the previous year and 20th the year before that.

There’s no doubt that Stevens’ philosophy has helped the Kings put the puck in the net. The other thing he’s done, is rely on key players-like Dustin Brown– that may have fallen out of favor with Sutter.

Brown’s resurgence this season has been nothing short of remarkable. Over the last four years, the 32-year-old finished with 27. 27, 28 and 36 points , which is a significant decrease for a one-time 30-goal scorer and four-time 20-goal scorer. Things got so bad for him that Sutter decided to strip him of the captaincy during the 2016 off-season.

This year, playing on a line with Anze Kopitar, not only has he found his confidence, he’s also rediscovered his scoring touch.  In just nine games, he’s already put up 11 points.

“I think there’s just been a little more focus on the scoring aspect,” Brown said after the team’s morning skate in Montreal on Thursday. “We’ve struggled to score. It wasn’t really big, eye-opening changes. It was more of a mindset change and just thinking about the game a little bit differently.

“We’re not scared not to make a play, if that makes sense,” added Brown. “We’re trying to learn how to do that without forfeiting our defensive structure, which is probably the staple of our identity. You see it up and down our lineup now, we have guys that are willing to try a play that we weren’t willing to try last year.”

In Brown’s case, it’s pretty clear that his new coach seems to have a lot of trust in him. The Kings forward had been averaging between 15:50 to 16:31 of ice time over the last four years. That number has spiked this year, as he’s been on the ice for an average of just under 20 minutes per night.

Stevens has him playing on the top line at even-strength and he’s also counted on him to play key minutes on both specials teams units. Brown is averaging 3:11 per game on the power play and 2:13 on the penalty kill. In 2016-17, those numbers were significantly lower, as he was on the ice for 1:30 per game on the man-advantage and 1:18 per game when his team was shorthanded. His even-strength ice time has also gone from 13:12 in Sutter’s final year as coach to 14:39 in 2017-18.

“I find it easier to play 20 (minutes) because you have a lot less time to think,” mentioned Brown. “The physical part is hard, but when you’re playing less time, there’s more time to think on the bench and sometimes your head can get in your own way.”

Unlike a lot of other head coaches, Stevens had the benefit of being on his team’s coaching staff for eight years before taking over behind the bench. Going into his first season as the head coach, he knew exactly what each player could or couldn’t do. His assessment of Brown, was that the veteran winger could do a lot more for his club.

“I told (Brown) this summer, ‘I don’t see any reason why you can’t be back to being 20-goal scorer,'” Stevens said. “He’s an important guy. He plays in all situations. We’ve got him back on the power play as a fixture because we want him at net-front. He’s been a good penalty killer, he plays against top guys. He’s had a great training camp and deserves the right to be in those situations. He’s had a lot of success in those situations before. It was much-needed for our hockey team.”

Stevens has pushed all the right buttons so far. He’s getting more out of his players and it’s led to them being in top spot in the Western Conference with a 7-1-1 record. Things won’t always be perfect this season, but it sure looks like they’ll be a whole lot better than last year.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.