It was easy for the internet trolls to mock the headline.
The Los Angeles Kings, it was announced this week, are building a statue to Dustin Brown, which will reside outside the arena formerly known as Staples Center after it is unveiled in February. Let’s just say the statue ought to come with a lengthy explainer about who, precisely, it commemorates. Star Plaza, as the area outside the building is known, is mostly festooned with tributes to actual stars – the kind even marginal sports fans know by one name. There’s a bronze sculpture of a hockey immortal named Gretzky. There are statues of Lakers greats like Magic and Shaq.
The prospect of Brown moving onto the same vaunted real estate seems a bit like wheeling a double-wide mobile home onto a lot meant for a Hollywood mansion. He was once named an NHL all-star, but he was never considered elite. He was a two-time Stanley Cup-winning captain, sure. But the best players on those teams were Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Quick. Brown was also stripped of that captaincy in the success-starved years that followed. So when Brown’s statue goes up — on the February day they simultaneously retire his No. 23 — there’ll be eyebrows raised, too.
There’s a strong counter-argument, mind you. Winning Cups takes more than star talent. It takes selflessness. At his best, Brown was prized as a heart-and-soul purveyor of relentless self-sacrifice. He had an uncanny knack for infuriating opponents and, in doing so, drawing penalties. He retired in May as the NHL’s all-time leader in hits. And even if hits have only been tracked since 2005-06, and counted unscientifically, that has to say something.
Certainly the news of Brown’s impending honour underlines the difficult nature of navigating the wake of a championship era. The Kings haven’t won a playoff series since they hoisted their second Cup in 2014. At more than a few moments in the Kings’ post-Cup struggles, Brown’s hefty contract was seen as a cautionary tale on the perils of rewarding a loyal soldier on a championship team with an annual average value based more on intangibles than actual production. There’s always a long list of reasons for a franchise’s failures. Managerial muffs. Cumulative fatigue. The incessant grind of Father Time.
But the trouble for Kings management was obvious. If you don’t reward players who bleed and sweat and break bones in the name of one Cup run, how do you convince players it’s worth it to bleed and sweat and break bones in the name of the next one? It’s always been the case with salaries. The Kings are suggesting it also applies to statues.
The Kings, of course, aren’t the only NHL team who’ve encountered their problematic moments navigating the wake of championship glory. As the 37-year-old Brown was luxuriating in the announcement of his imminent immortality, a one-time rival captain only a few years Brown’s junior was publicly ruing his club’s current direction.
Like the Kings, the Chicago Blackhawks haven’t won a playoff series since they last hoisted their third of the three Cups won in 2010, 2013 and 2015. And now that general manager Kyle Davidson has committed to a scorched-earth rebuild, trading young talent like Alex DeBrincat and Kirby Dach for futures, 34-year-old team captain Jonathan Toews isn’t exactly rubber-stamping the plan.
“At the end of the day, we’re talking about a five-plus-year process, according to Kyle. So, that part of it doesn’t sound appealing to me at all,” Toews told The Athletic’s Mark Lazerus this week. “I can’t speak for (fellow three-time Cup champion Patrick Kane) but I definitely feel that the amount of turnover our team has gone through every single year these last three or four years, that’s where it gets really, really draining. And exhausting.
“You have a guy like Alex DeBrincat who was under Kaner’s wing. And I like to think that Kirby and I had that bond in some ways, too. And out they go, out the door. Over and over, we’ve seen that turnover.
“ I’m learning to be more patient, but there’s no doubt that timeline is pretty daunting, and pretty exhausting to think about. So, I’m not going to sit here and say what I’m going to do or what the future holds for me, because I really don’t know.”
There’s no easy answer. The Blackhawks have seen their front office rightly cleared out in the wake of the Kyle Beach tragedy. Their most recent attempt at retooling on the fly, by acquiring the likes of Seth Jones and Marc-André Fleury last summer, hasn’t born fruit. And as much as the dynamic Kane is still providing value for the $10.5-million (U.S.) cap hit, Toews, though he is paid an identical sum, has struggled to maintain his on-ice relevance.
Certainly it underlines how impressive it is that, say, the Pittsburgh Penguins remain competitive while preserving the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. “Competitive” is relative, of course. The Penguins have won precisely one playoff series in the five post-seasons since their won their second of back-to-back Cups in 2017. And time isn’t exactly on their side. Crosby will be 35 next month. Malkin turns 36 on Sunday. Letang is 35.
Maybe the Penguins took a considerable gamble by using this off-season to hand Letang and Malkin contract extensions that run six years and four years, respectively. But considering Letang and Malkin took matching annual average values of $6.1 million — this with Crosby, who’s under contract for three more seasons at an $8.7-million cap hit, encouraging both to do what they could to keep the band together — maybe there’s another Cup run in a group that’s already been together for three championships.
And even if there isn’t, it’s not like there’s a simple playbook for Plan B. It’s easy to mock the Kings’ plan to put a statue of a non-star in Los Angeles’s Star Plaza. But two Stanley Cups is two more than most NHL captains ever cradle.
In Toronto, where they haven’t been to so much as a Cup final since the Kings’ inaugural season, a two-time Cup captain who hit anything that moved would own Leafs Nation for generations, no matter his stats. In a country that hasn’t seen an NHL team worthy of a championship celebration since 1993, more than one fan base would trade most of a messy decade of post-title decay for one measly parade.
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