Dustin Brown turns it around

NEWARK, N.J. -- Dean Lombardi refers to them as "growth spurts."

Dustin Brown's career has had stages where he has taken his game, and his leadership skills, to the next level.

The latest growth spurt for the Los Angeles Kings' captain has been the most impressive of all. All facets of his game are up a notch in these playoffs, and his leadership on and off the ice has mirrored it.

"A growth spurt at the right time," Lombardi told ESPN.com. "That is as much a mental thing, the growth of a player, as much as physical and the skill maturation."

The latest growth spurt just happens to have coincided with trade rumors in late February that for the first time in his career had Brown possibly on the block.

Lombardi, to this day, denies that was ever the case, although sources confirm Pittsburgh, Boston and St. Louis did show interest in Brown.

In the end, true or not, the trade rumors were not a bad thing at all from the Kings' perspective. Sometimes a player can get comfortable when he has grown up and played for only one team. The trade rumors struck a chord with Brown.

"When your name gets thrown out there, and I've been in L.A. my whole career, it was surprising," Brown said in an interview with ESPN.com. "But in the back of your mind, as a competitor, you want to prove everyone wrong."

The rumors began the night of the Feb. 23 acquisition of Jeff Carter from Columbus, at which point Brown had 31 points in 62 games. Since that night, the 27-year-old native of Ithaca, N.Y., put up 39 points (15-24) in 37 games -- playoffs included. That first game after those trade rumors began, Brown responded with a hat trick against Chicago, plus an assist. A four-point night.

Take that.

"He went on a tear. I said, 'Way to go,'" Lombardi said.

"Whether those rumors are true or not, they're still out there, it gives you maybe a bit more motivation," said Brown. "Not that if there would not have been any trade rumors I wouldn't have had a hat trick that night, but you certainly get a chip on your shoulder when you hear something like that."

Lombardi said he never addressed those trade deadline rumors with Brown when they were swirling.

"No, there was nothing to it in the first place," said the Kings GM. "There's so much out there now that if I made a habit of that, I'd have a guy in my office every week."

And while the trade rumors were certainly the original spark, the time of the season was also a relevant factor. The Kings had to play for their lives the last two months of the season just to get into the playoffs. That's motivation enough for any key player to try to step it up a notch.

"Maybe a mixture of a couple of things," said Brown. "I knew I had to be better, and that went hand-in-hand with our team; a lot of our players got a lot better the last 20 games because we needed to make the playoffs. We put ourselves in a tough position entering the stretch, and guys responded. And for me individually, I took more responsibility of being better myself. I took a look in the mirror a little bit, and Darryl is a big part of that."

Head coach Darryl Sutter has found the right buttons with so many of these Kings players. Drew Doughty had found his game again under the old-school coach. Anze Kopitar has gone to another level. Dustin Penner has rediscovered his talent. And Brown is playing the best hockey of his career.

"He has played exactly as their team plays, with speed, tenacity, and a real edge," Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock, his team run over by Brown in the second round, told ESPN.com. "He has that look like he is willing to go a little further than you are."

"He has been the most impactful skater in the playoffs," said a rival Western Conference pro scout.

Each round, Brown has made his presence felt, whether it was his crushing hit on Canucks captain Henrik Sedin in the first round, his thunderous hits -- both delivering and receiving -- with Blues captain David Backes in the second round, and his ongoing battles with Coyotes captain Shane Doan in the conference finals.

Two games does not erase three amazing playoff rounds. Or three great months of hockey, either. But Brown's opening two games of the Cup finals have been quiet. He's pointless and while he tried in Game 2 especially to throw his weight around, it's not been quite the same Brown yet. All of which should have us expecting a big Game 3 from the Kings captain.

He has been as much loved by his team as loathed by the other for his physical play. And he insists he's not truly targeting the top player on each team, it's more a matter that his top line generated those matchups.

"I think it's important to be hard on the other team's top player and I make an effort of finishing my checks," said Brown. "But those big, impact hits? They just happen."

There's certainly been controversy. His borderline hit on Michal Rosvizal one shift before Penner ended the Coyotes' season in overtime sparked a bizarre and emotional ending in Phoenix. In the handshake line, a few Coyotes could be seen heatedly conversing with Brown.

"I was a little surprised," said Brown. "A couple of those guys said things. I was a little surprised at Doaner. I've been on the losing side of handshakes, I know how bad it feels. Again, it happened so quick between the Roszival hit and our goal, it was a perfect storm for their emotions. Things were said in the [handshake] line. I thought the hit was clean, obviously the league did as well, and the Coyotes didn't at the time. Emotions can get the best of you and I give them the benefit of the doubt."

Brown's big hits and clutch goals have led the way the way a captain is supposed to lead at this time of year.

"He's doing what leaders do -- recognizing critical moments and getting it done," said Lombardi. "That's still the bottom line. You look at Tom Brady and Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier and all those guys, that's still the ultimate leader. And we've seen numerous instances of that with Dustin."

It hasn't come easy. Brown's evolution, and maturation, as a captain on and off the ice has had its peaks and valleys. As a young player, Brown was a shy person and being an NHL captain hasn't been a fit overnight for him.

"When he was given the 'C,' that's where there was a lot of learning to do," said Lombardi. "This has been process since the first day I showed up on the job. He would look down when he talked; he had no self-esteem or confidence. But we knew he cared. There was no doubt about it. And you can't do the other things unless you care. We knew this was something we could work with. But it's fair to say, when you look at the Gretzkys, the Messiers, even Mike Richards, it was in them. With Dustin, it's clearly been a growth process."

Last season, the Kings concerned at the time with Brown's performance as captain, Lombardi called a meeting with him and didn't hold back. Then other front-office personnel and coaching staff members also met with Brown the same day.

"I took to heart what they said," Brown said. "I had never looked at it that way from a leadership standpoint that people are looking at you all the time. That made me open my eyes, look in the mirror, and I grew from that."

But it was far from an easy thing to go through.

"It was a pretty emotional and long meeting," said Brown. "It was overwhelming."

The next day, Brown went into former coach Terry Murray's office and told him he understood what was being said to him and he appreciated them pointing it out. He also told Lombardi the same, but not without giving the GM a piece of his mind. Which, looking back, Brown now figures Lombardi probably wanted to see that kind of fire in him.

"There were a lot of things that were said in that meeting that were completely, 100 percent true," Brown said. "But there were things Dean said to me -- and I don't know if he was just trying to get me going or if he really thought that -- but I let him know that it wasn't the case. I think he probably liked that."

What's not to like about Dustin Brown these days? A fiery, game-breaking player on the ice, he's also a more comfortable leader off the ice. He looks you in the eye now when you talk to him. Gone is the shy, young man from yesteryear.

"It's more a growth from a personal standpoint than an athlete," Brown said. "Just dealing with the media, that stuff you learn as you go and you get more comfortable the more you do it. From a hockey standpoint, it's been a learning experience and I'm still learning today."