Dustin Brown comes to a slow realization as to how suggestive the title of this post is.
Prior to Jeff Carter's hat trick in Game 2 versus the Phoenix Coyotes, the former Flyer had struggled to dapple the scoresheet with any regularity since coming from Ohio in February. In 26 games as a King, Carter had contributed just seven goals and five assists.
Considering what he's paid, production like that will eventually leave his relationship with Kings fans as frosty as the tips of his hair. But for right now, they should love him, because he's been an invaluable addition to lineup. In fact, he's the reason this group went from a middle-of-the-pack team to the favorite to win it all.
Carter's numbers since arriving in California may be unimpressive, but Dustin Brown's are astronomical. In the 27 games since the Carter trade, Brown has 15 goals and 37 points. In the 60 games prior, Brown put up 14 goals and 29 points.
In the playoffs, Brown has been incredible. The Kings' captain is the front-runner for the Conn Smythe, with seven goals and seven assists in 11 games.
Brown's great leap forward is often explained as a matter of drive: He was energized, some have said, by rumors that he was on the block and Carter was being brought in to replace him. The narrative certainly fits: Brown scored a hat trick in Carter's first game, and registered at least a point in the nine games that followed.
But when it comes to a sudden spike in production, I'm wary of any explanation that suggests a certain player simply decided to play awesome in order to prove a point. That's silly, especially in a game like hockey where luck is such a factor.
Furthermore, it doesn't really hold up: If Brown were just playing harder, he'd probably have more shots and more hits. But his 2.8 shots and his 3.6 hits per game prior to Carter's arrival don't budge afterwards. His on-ice shooting percentage, which jumps from 6.8 to 11.3, but unless he suddenly decided to shoot the puck better, that's just good fortune.
He's playing the same way. Still, it's clear that something did change for Brown after the Carter trade. So what was it?
Darryl Sutter's lines.
In the two months between Darryl Sutter's hiring and the Carter acquisition, the new bench boss experimented incessantly with line combinations, looking for chemistry all through the lineup. Brown bounced all over the place. On one night, he'd play with Dwight King and Mike Richards. On another, he'd line up alongside Brad Richardson and Jarrett Stoll.
The moment Carter was acquired, however, Darryl Sutter stopped shuffling and created three stable pairings around which to build his top three lines. He married Carter and Mike Richards (to the glee of Carter, one assumes); he dropped Dustin Penner to the third line with Jarrett Stoll; and Brown went to the top line, alongside Anze Kopitar. With occasional exceptions, these duos have been set in stone ever since.
Now, if there are two things that can really boost a player's production, it's consistent linemates and superstar linemates. Consistent superstar linemates, then, are the best of both worlds (like being a mild-mannered high-schooler by day and a secret pop star by night).
Consider: The Kings were controlling 52.5 percent of all Fenwick events (that's shots on goal and missed shots directed at the goal) with Dustin Brown on the ice prior to the trade. After acquiring Carter, that number takes an astronomical jump to 62.7 percent.
This isn't to say that Brown isn't a good player all on his own, but when he's playing with Kopitar, the two reach elite status. The duo have helped the Kings control 60 percent of events when they're on the ice together.
More importantly, as stupid good as Brown and Kopitar are, the sudden depth beneath them makes it impossible to focus on shutting down their line. If you do, as the Coyotes did successfully in Game 2, for the most part, by countering with Boyd Gordon's shutdown line, the scoring punch of the middle six kicks in and guys like Jeff Carter make it rain hats.
But for right now, Carter doesn't need to score with any regularity. His presence in the lineup has freed up Dustin Brown to that just fine.
s/t to @thomasdrance for his help with this post.
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