Monday, September 11, 2017

Is the Kings Captaincy a Cursed Position?

After seeing Anze Kopitar’s level of play drop so drastically in the 2016-17 season, and thinking about how much Dustin Brown’s stats also dropped from 2012 through 2016 during his term as captain, I began to wonder if this was a pattern. In the 50 year history of the organization there have been 14 different captains. I went back about 30 years to when Dave Taylor took over as Captain in the 1985-86 season to see if there was a trend in declining performance after being made the Kings Captain. In this time frame the Kings have had 7 different captains.

Anze Kopitar
Anze Kopitar, 2007 By Nichole
[CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
     Taylor held the captaincy from the 1985-86 season through the 1988-89 season. For Taylor we do not see a drastic drop in the number of goals and assists he contributed to the team.  In his career best season, 1980-81, Dave Taylor posted 47 goals and 65 assists for a total of 112 points in 72 games played.  In the 8 years before his captaincy however, he averaged 34 goals a season and 49 assists. During the 4 years where he served as the Kings Captain he averaged 26 goals a season and 40 assists. So there was a slight decline in production but nothing to terribly damning. Where you really see the captaincy take its impact on Taylor's performance is in his overall effectiveness on the ice. Before he was captain his +/- stats were very good usually in the range of high 20's to high 30's and in the 1980-81 season he was a +47.  During the 4 years that he held the captaincy his last year, 1988-89, was his best at a +10 the other 3 years he was at 0 or in the - numbers. His first year as captain was the worst in overall effectiveness where he ended the season at a -16, this was his worst performing year career wide.  After he gave up the position of captain while his production was much lower averaging only 12 goals a season and 17 assists his overall effectiveness went back up drastically he was back at a + 17 his first year and a +27 the following season. The last 3 years his stats began to decline rapidly, he was also playing far fewer games, less than half the season in some cases. Even so his +/- never fell below a -1,  still better than what his was doing as a captain.

The Great One
Wayne Gretzky statue, By Kerri Polizza [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

     Next of course was Wayne Gretzky, he held the position from the 1989-90 season through the 1991-92 season. He then took a season off from the captaincy in the 1992-93 season. This was due to a surgery that he had to undergo in late September of 1992 for a herniated disk in his upper back. Amazingly even after back surgery at the beginning of the season Gretzky was still able to play 45 games that season. Granted his performance was not quite up to par but still to even be back in competition shape so soon after that kind of surgery is a testament to the type of player Gretzky was.  He returned to be the Kings captain again from the 1993-94 season through most of the 1995-96 season. Gretzky, being The Great One, I did not expect to see much drop in his performance even with the added stresses of the captaincy.  During the 7 years of his captaincy with the Kings Gretzky averaged 33 goals a season and 89 assists. Before he joined the Kings Gretzky was also captain for the Oilers for the 1983-84 season through the 1987-88 season. In his 5 years as the Oilers Captain he averaged  63 goals a season and 129 assists. Before he became a captain, during the time of the 1978-79 season through the 1982-83 season, he averaged 52 goals a season and 81 assists. Again however, even with The Great One, Gretzky's effectiveness on the ice dropped when he became the Kings captain. In the 5 years he was the Oilers captain his +/- score ranged from a +39 to a +98, notably the lowest of these values was his last season with the Oilers just 2 seasons before he became the Kings Captain.  However, as the captain of the Kings Gretzky's +/- score his first season in 1989-90 was only a +8.  During his tenure as the Kings captain his got the +/- score as high as 30 in the 1990-91 season his 2nd as the Kings Captain. However, sadly most years it was a - number ranging from a -7 to a -25. These stats indicate that it is not just the stresses of being a captain for any NHL team that lead to a decline in performance, but being the captain of the Kings specifically. While he played for the Oilers he scored, and assisted on more goals and was overall a much more effective player.  Granted he was never quite the same player after he came back from the back surgery in 1992, but even in those first few years on the Kings his stats were not as good as they had been with the Oilers.

Luc Robitaille, 2005
By JamesTeterenko
[CC BY 2.5], 
via Wikimedia Commons
     For one season, 1992-93, in the middle of Gretzky’s reign Luc Robitaille was captain for the Kings. For the one season that he was the Kings Captain Robitaille had 63 goals and 62 assists in 84 games and his +/- was 18. in the 6 seasons prior to his captaincy he had an average of 48 goals a season and 51 assists. During that time his +/- was evenly split with 3 years in  +  numbers and 3 years in - numbers. His best season was 1990-91 where he was a +28, and his worst year was his rookie year 1986-87 where he was a -18. Luc Robitaille played for another 12 years in the NHL after his term as the Kings Captian for several different teams. In 1994-95 he spent a season with the Penguins, between 1995 and 1997 he spent 2 season with the Rangers, then 5 more years with the Kings between 1997 and 2001, 2 seasons with the Red wings between 2001 and 2003, then finally back to the Kings from 2003 until her retired in 2006.  In this time frame Luc Robitaille averaged 27 goals a season and 30 assists. His +/- score dropped to a -20 in his first season after the captaincy but recovered back into the + side for most of the remainder of is career ranging from a +4 to a +16. So far Luc Robitaille is the exception for the Kings Captains, he actually has a better year both in points scored and effectiveness on the ice in his term as captain than he did the year before or several years after. Maybe he felt less stress or pressure since he knew it was a temporary job. He was just filling in for Wayne Gretzky during a time when Gretzky was injured and under going major back surgery. Maybe it was just luck, or the chemistry of the team that year. Though I tend to doubt this since Gretzky had lower than average (for him) stats with basically the same team in the few years before and after Robitaille was captain. Most likely it shows higher than average stats for Robitaille's captaincy because it was just a single year so there was not as much data to work with.

     Following the Gretzky era, Rob Blake took the job. He held the captaincy for the last few games of the 1995-96 season until the end of the 2000-01 season. Like Gretzky he to returned to the position of captain, though after a much longer break, for one more season. Blake was again captain for the 2007-08 season before handing off the job to Dustin Brown. During the 7 seasons that Rob Blake held the Kings Captaincy he averaged 13 goals  a season and 24 assists. Blake only had 1 season when he held the captaincy and had a +/- stat in the positive, that was the 1999-00 season where he ended at a +10.  In 6 seasons before he took the captaincy of the Kings Rob Blake averaged 12 goals a season, and 29 assists. Blake had an even split of years where his +/- score was positive and negative, at 3 years each, before he took the captaincy. His best year before his tenure as captain was in 1992-93 where he was a +18, his worst year was 1994-95 where he was a -16. Most telling for Rob Blake was what happened between 2001 and 2006 and then again in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons.  Near the end of the 2000-01 season Rob Blake was traded to the Avalanche where he played through the end of the 2005-06 season. During these 4 full seasons with Colorado Blake averaged 16 goals a season and 35 assists. While he played for the Avalanche his +/- score was always positive ranging from 5 to 7. He went back to the Kings  for 2 season between 2006 and 2008 where his average goals went down to 11 a season and assists went down to an average of 21 a season. Again most telling was that his +/- score was negative both years, it was -26 one year and -19 the other.  For the last 2 season of his NHL Career, between 2008 and 2010 Rob Blake played for the Sharks. With the Sharks Blake only averaged 9 goals a season, but was back up to 29 assists on average. Blake's effectiveness on the ice also went way back up in his tenure with the Sharks. His +/- score was +15 the first season he played with them and +14 the second season in roughly the same number of games he played the previous 2 season with the Kings. So it seems for Blake that he played more effectively for the Kings before and after he was their captain, but played far more effectively when he was not a member of the Kings team at all.

Mattias Norstrom
Mattias Norstrom, 2006
By Matthew McPherson
[CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
     Next up was Mattais Norstrom, who held the Captaincy from the 2001-02 season until the end of the 2006-07 season. Norstrom held the Kings Captaincy for 6 seasons. This was the period of time where Rob Blake had been traded to Colorado. In his time as captain Mattais Norstrom averaged 2 goals a season and 12 assists a season. Before you ask what the Kings were thinking putting someone who's production was so low in the position, I should mention that Norstrom was a Defenseman. So the stats we should be looking at are goals created (GC) and penalty minutes (PIM). In his time as the Kings Captain Norstrom averaged 0.06 GC  per game and 48 PIM average. As the Kings Captain Mattais Norstrom had 1 season where he had a +/- score of 0 the other 5 seasons he was in the negative numbers ranging from -2 his first year as captain to -20 his last year as captain. In the 8 seasons before he made captain his average stats were identical for both GC and PIM to what they were during his captaincy. Before his captaincy however, Norstrom's effectiveness on the ice was much better than it was during the time he served as the Kings captain. For 5 of the 8 seasons prior to his captaincy Mattais Norstrom had positive +/- scores.  In the 2 season before he was at a +10 and a +22, then dropped dramatically to a - 2 in his first year as Captain. When he was traded to the Stars he managed to bring his +/- up from a dismal -20 in his last season with the Kings to a +3 in his first full season with the Stars. Not quite to where he had been before he was the Kings Captain with a season where he was at a +22, but much better than where he had been in his last year as captain with the Kings. So again we see a player whose effectiveness on the ice dropped significantly while captain for the Kings, who was able to bounce back after leaving the position of captain and/or being traded to a different team.

Dustin Brown (25993630263)
Dustin Brown, 2016
By mark6mauno [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
     This brings us back to Dustin Brown who reigned as captain from then 2008-09 season through the 2015-16 season. Brown had the longest reign as the Kings captain in the organizations 50 year history at 8 seasons! In those 8 years he averaged 19 goals a season and 22 assists. During the 4 seasons before his Captaincy Brown averaged 17 goals and 19 assists a season. The first to season that Dustin Brown held the captaincy even though he was sill scoring 24 goals a season he was struggling in remaining effective on the ice, his +/- score dropped to a -15 the first season and was still negative at -6 the second. Then we see a miraculous recovery in the 2010-11 season where he jumps to a +17 while scoring 28 goals and making 29 assists. The following season is great too with a +/- of 18 and still 22 goals with 32 assists, leading the Kings to their first Stanley Cup! After that however his production and effectiveness on the ice began to fall, by the 2013-14 season where the Kings won their 2nd Stanley Cup Brown made only 15 goals with 12 assists and his +/- was down to 7. Then in his final  2 years as captain he made only 11 goals each year and was at a -17 and a -5 before handing the Captaincy over to Anze Kopitar last season. Since it has only been one season since Dustin Brown retired the captaincy it is hard to determine if  leaving the stress or curse of the Kings captaincy behind will have a sustainable improvement in his play, but last season he was up to 14 goals from 11 the last year of his captaincy, and 22 assists up from 16. He was still in the negative numbers for his +/- score but at a -4 as opposed to the horrific -22 previously. Hopefully this coming season he will continue to up his level of play returning to, or at least getting closer to, the player who led his team to 2 Stanley cups.

     Finally this brings us up to Anze Kopitar, who of course took over as captain last year for the 2015-16 season and will be returning g as captain this season.As anyone who watched any Kings hockey last year will no doubt know, Anze Kopitar did not have a good year in his first season as the Kings captain. This seems to be going right in line with what we have seen for the performance of 6 of the last 7 Kings captains over the last 30 years. Having just signed a monumentally large 8 season contract with the Kings last season we have to hope that Kopitar's performance or lack there of can be attributed to the season opening injury of goalie Jonathan Quick. Having Quick out for nearly half of the season forced the Kings to change their style of play to offer more support for back up goaltenders Jeff Zatkoff, and then after Zatkoff's injury  Peter Budaj. Budaj did a great job in net for the Kings, far better than most of us expected, but he is not in the same league with, nor does he have the same style of play as Quick. Regardless of the reasons Anze Kopitar scored only
 goals last season and had only 40 assists, and he ended the season with a negative +/- score at a - 10. This was his worst +/- score in 7 seasons! Kopitar played 10 seasons in the NHL before becoming captain all of them with the Kings. In those 10 seasons he averaged 24 goals and 44 assists per season. His first 3 seasons in the NHL Kopitar struggled with effectiveness on the ice posting +/- numbers ranging from -12 to -17. This is not an uncommon struggle for any player starting out in the NHL so I am not terribly alarmed by it. By the 2009-10 season he was at a +6  with 34 goals and 47 assists, an his performance continued to improve with stats trending up from there.  His best season was the 2013-14 season where Kopitar had 29 goals and 41 assists with a +/- score of 34. Kopitar was definitely a big part of the reason that the Kings were able to win the Stanley Cup that year! He posted similar numbers again in the 2016-16 season where he had 25 goals, 49 assists, and again a +/- score of  34.

     Is there a curse associated with the Kings captaincy? Possibly, certainly some great players have taken on the role and then seen dramatic drops in their performance over the last  years.  Even Wayne Gretzky's stats were considerably worse, (worse for him, still pretty damn good for anyone else) as the Kings captain than hey had been when he was the Oilers captain just he season before. Luc Robitaille seems to be the only one who escaped this rather disturbing phenomenon and he had the shortesr tenure as captain in the history of the organization. There were 4 captains who only served in the position or 2 seasons each during the first 8 years that the Kings were part of the NHL, but Robitaille is the only one to have the position for just 1 season. Strangely to me, Dustin Brown provided me with hope that the position is not an inescapable curse! Brown had a rough couple of years at the beginning of his captaincy, but had some of his best seasons in the middle of his tenure as the Kings Captain. So I am left still wondering if there is a curse associated with becoming the captain of the Kings, and hoping that Kopitar's rough season was more to do with the change in styles of play that most of the team went through as a result of key player injuries than with being made captain. Hopefully like Dustin Brown he will bounce back and again be the Kopitar we have come to expect on the ice. Unlike Brown when Kopitar recovers, as we all hope he does, he needs to maintain his good production and high level of effectiveness for more than the 2 season that Brown manged while captain.
     The Kings still have their share of problems not attributed to a Kopitar or a change in captaincy, and in my opinion have not done enough in the off season to correct them. I am hoping that the change in coaching staff and management will have a positive effect, and that having Quick back and healthy will be enough to let them have a much better season this year. That being said however, I am still doubtful that it will be enough to get the Kings back in the playoffs.

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