Last week, Kopitar scored his 100th NHL goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets. When you see stats like that from any player, it’s obvious that he’s good. But for someone to put up points by the age of 22, it’s a completely different story. When Dean Lombardi signed him to his 7 year, $ 47.6 million contract extension last season, he was saying that Kopitar is an elite, #1 NHL center.
There’s no doubt that guys like Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin and Ilya Kovlachuk are all elite players. Over the offseason, there was a lot of debate whether the free agent Sedin twins were in the upper echelon of NHL players. When you look at the way the Los Angeles Kings are building around their young core, Lombardi is banking on Kopitar to be that kind of player. Which begs the question: Is Kopitar an elite player?This isn’t the first time that he’s been answering questions like this. The 6’4” pivot was one of the top rated players in the 2005 Draft—yet slipped all the way to 11th overall. There were questions whether Slovenia could produce a player of the highest quality or if he was too raw. Did he get the proper training as a developing player to be able to eventually transition to the NHL?
He’ll have moments where there’s no doubt that he’s an elite player. In Saturday’s game in Boston, Kopitar had a goal, an assist, a beautiful shootout goal and was the best player on the ice for EITHER team. He’ll be the top NHL scorer after the first month of the season and fans will think that he’s arrived. But then he’ll have months like December that remind you that there’s always room for improvement.
One way to evaluate his success is to look at his career path. It’s not like he just rolled out of bed and magically became the player that was leading the league in goals and points. Under Marc Crawford, Kopitar was allowed to blossom as the offensive powerhouse that scouts foresaw in his draft year.
Last season, Terry Murray brought his defensive philosophy to the young Kings. That meant the young core of Kings that had already experienced offensive success would be asked to take a step back and learn to play in both ends of the rink. Across the board, Kings forwards saw their goal production and overall point production take a dip. Kopitar and his team leading 77 points were no different.
But to look at point production alone would miss the big picture with Kopitar’s development. The coaching staff all taught him how to play against the league’s best players. Hell, they taught him how to back check!
“Kopitar might not have the flashy numbers of Alexander Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby, but it’s his two-way play that sets him apart from others on the ice. He always had the potential, but when he was asked by Terry Murray last season to focus on playing back and improving the defensive aspect of his game, it was a huge adjustment, and his production slipped. I didn’t see Ovechkin or Crosby be asked to alter their game as much as Kopitar did last season.” –Matt Murray from Life In Hockeywood
For the Kings to get where they want to go, they needed Kopitar to develop into a player that is more than just an offensive force. They needed a guy that could play 20+ minutes—and in any situation. They needed someone who could play on the power play, even strength and even the penalty kill. They wanted him to be a guy that could be on the ice at the end of the game whether they were down by a goal or up by a goal—and he’s taken great strides towards fulfilling their visions.
Over the offseason, Kopitar dedicated himself to taking the NEXT step towards becoming one of the best players in the world. As the case with so many other talented players, he had been able to get this far on God-given skill alone.
“Dean Lombardi has stated that Kopitar’s conditioning was a huge factor over his career. This season, everyone was talking about much work he put the offseason and praised his conditioning. But the problem was that he had to put all that work in just to get to the level of an average NHL player.” –Gann Matsuda from FrozenRoyalty.net
Much has been made of Kopitar’s hot start and subsequent slowdown in November. Plenty of outlets and analysts have made the connection between Kopitar’s drop in production and the injury to Ryan Smyth. While having his lineman that created time and space for him on the ice certainly didn’t help, there are a couple of fundamental flaws in their reasoning. First, his dip began a few games BEFORE Smyth went on the IR. Secondly, his production didn’t automatically return when Captain Canada returned to the lineup.
While his pattern of production has loosely followed Smyth’s presence in the lineup, Kopitar has gone through peaks and valleys this season that can’t simply be explained by an injured reserve list. If they could, then we could end all discussion of his elite position right here and now. Alexander Ovechkin doesn’t drop off the NHL’s leader board because a linemate gets hurt. Elite players make others around them BETTER, not the other way around.
Lombardi and Matsuda were much more likely to be close to the truth. At the beginning of the season, he just looked stronger in all facets of the game. He was stronger on the puck along the boards. He was stronger on the back check. He was stronger in the dirty areas to score goals. He was in a word: stronger.
“The goals that Kopitar was scoring earlier in the year—they weren’t necessarily pretty goals. He was working hard, played with a renewed sense of confidence, went to the dirty areas and scored the dirty goals.” –Gann Matsuda from FrozenRoyalty.net
There was a confidence that Kopitar played with at the beginning of the season that Kings fans had never seen. Perhaps it was having an all-star winger on his line. Perhaps it was a confidence that stemmed from becoming a veteran who was being counted on to provide leadership for the young Kings. More than likely though, it was the self-belief that sprung from being in the best shape of his life. He knew the skills he had and he knew that he was prepared to use them within the context of an NHL game—day in, day out.
Sometimes, people get caught up in the roller coaster ride that IS being a fan. If a player scores 8 points in 3 days, then he’s destined for the Hall of Fame. If he goes scoreless for a week, then he’s lost it and he sucks. As anything else in life, the truth is somewhere in the middle. He’s not the greatest player ever—and he’s not a disappointment.
Part of the reason that Kopitar is going through the roller coaster ride is the simple fact that he’s young. He’s still learning his craft—he’s learning his game. Just like he’s learned to score in his first two seasons or learned how to play defensive hockey last season, he’s still learning this season.
It’s not necessarily anything that fans will see in the box score. He’s learning to play with the proverbial target on his back. He’s learning what it’s like to play with added pressure from the media. He’s learning how to play with expectations. It’s a step that has broken so many players before him. But judging by his renewed production in January, it looks like he’s gone through the dark times and come out the other side. And he’s stronger for it.
“The problem is that virtually everyone is too young to be appropriately labeled as ‘elite,’ but Anze Kopitar is definitely someone who you’d associate that word with. He is a player who you expect to create something out of nothing. He IS the playmaker. He IS the scorer. There is no other place on the roster for him except at the top.” –Connie Kim from Jewels From The Crown
People are so quick to label a player a superstar, the “Next Gretzky,” or even elite. For now, Anze Kopitar and his fans are going to have to settle for “great player with flashes of brillance.” There’s no shame in that—and I sincerely believe this isn’t the end of his development. I’m not the only one that has come to this conclusion.
“While there is little doubt the Kopitar will be an elite center in the league, he is not quite there. With 53 points in 53 games, Kopitar has now taken that key next step. He has all the right tools in that he’s winning face-offs, is defensively responsible and can drive to the net and score… But it’s too soon to call him ‘elite.’ Ask me again when the season’s over (hopefully sometime in April).” –Keith Korneluk from Kingscast.net
For the next 7 years, people in L.A. can take comfort in the fact that he’ll be maturing into a dominant player while wearing a Kings jersey. Whether he becomes an elite superstar or bonafide #1 pivot, he’ll be one of the center pieces to the Kings long-term success.
That might be the final piece of Kopitar’s development—team success. Once he is leading the Kings to playoff victories on national television, he’ll start to get the respect that he’s earned. He might not be there yet—but he certainly is showing signs that he has the potential to reach those heights before his career is over.
At the end of the day, how many players can even say they’re in that conversation?
“Sure, he might not have the face time as those other two, but that will change when the Kings make the playoffs and Kopitar continues to play solid two-way hockey. Anze The Giant will no longer toil in the shadows of the Western Conference.” –Matt Murray from Life In Hockeywood