2017-18 Season Preview: Anze Kopitar, the Selke Slovenian

Though his English skills and calm nature are impressive, fans would rather be more impressed by his hockey again.

With only three of the 17 panelists on NHL.com predicting that the Los Angeles Kings will even make the playoffs this season, Anze Kopitar—who many fear is declining—faces a daunting task ahead of him to bring his team back to contention.  The panel from Fear The Fin, our neighbors up north, generally predicts the Kings to be fourth or fifth in the Pacific (but grossly overestimates the Sharks to be second or third).  And we’re not even getting any love from Knights On Ice.

Fans have heard it all over the media about Kopitar’s decline last season.  Here’s a quick summary from Chris Oddo:

The 52 points Kopitar produced last season were the lowest total of his 11-year NHL career, except for the strike-shortened 2012-13 campaign. The 29-year-old had averaged between 0.80 and 0.99 points per game in every season of his NHL career until last year, so either Kopitar got really old really fast, or last year was the statistical aberration in an otherwise Hall of Fame-worthy career.

Writers have blamed a variety of issues, such as overwork from international play:

Worn down by playing Olympic qualifying games for his native Slovenia and World Cup duty for Team Europe before the NHL season, he labored and produced only 12 goals and 52 points. That was his lowest total in a non-lockout season and placed him second to Jeff Carter (66 points) in team scoring.

Pressure from the captaincy:

Right wing Dustin Brown, who had the captain’s “C” yanked away from him in the summer of 2016 but was gracious in supporting Kopitar as his successor, saw his friend and frequent linemate’s frustration grow throughout the season. “We talked a lot, just about the responsibilities of everything and trying to handle the pressure and just try to help him through it,” Brown said. “Sometimes it’s not the easiest. You can get into a spot where it’s not fun to play hockey, in a way.”

And linemates:

A few years ago, Kopitar was taking regular shifts with the likes of Marian Gaborik, Jeff Carter, and Justin Williams. But over time, former head coach Darryl Sutter kind of pushed Kopitar into a more defense-oriented role. In 2015-16 his more common linemates turned into Milan Lucic and Dustin Brown.

More on linemates:

Kopitar also played the majority of his minutes with Marian Gaborik and Dustin Brown. If any two players’ skills have diminished more than the rest of the Kings, it would have to be Gaborik and Brown. Kopitar had much more success working with Milan Lucic, Tyler Toffoli and Justin Williams in recent years, but two of those players are gone and Toffoli is a fixture on “That 70’s Line” with Jeff Carter and Tanner Pearson.

If you want a more advanced-stats analysis, Eric and Robyn have each written one.  But enough is enough.  What can Kopitar do?

For starters, Kopitar’s goals have fluctuated over the last four years, but his assists have not fluctuated so much.  Let’s take a look at his stats:

  • 2013-14 (won Cup): 29 G, 41 A, +34
  • 2014-15 (missed playoffs): 16 G, 48 A, -2
  • 2015-16 (made playoffs): 25 G, 49 A, +34
  • 2016-17 (missed playoffs): 12 G, 40 A, -10/

As you can see, Kopitar has bounced back in 2015-16 after a decline the year before.  His 40 assists last season are close to the 41 assists he scored in the Cup run of 2013-14.  Kopitar is therefore aging “gracefully” and is not going off a cliff in terms of productivity, so there is no need to panic.  Ultimately, the blame lies in Darryl Sutter’s grinding, checking system, which collapsed in 2016-17 due to a late-identified missing ingredient—the mental grit of departed players like Mike Richards, Jarret Stoll, Matt Greene, and Justin Williams.  Scoring decreased, and the first and second line forwards of the Kings suffered greatly, experiencing huge declines in plus-minus rating.

It’s clear from his statistics that Kopitar is a facilitator and not the primary goal scorer of the team.  The addition of Michael Cammalleri will help, as he has the hands to score with pucks that Kopitar passes his way.  The lack of Olympic play in 2018 will greatly help, as Kopitar is now 30 and needs to be smarter with his workload.  However, Kopitar is the archetype of the Sutter-Lombardi system—a well-rounded center whose game is to outmuscle opponents with possession and size.  The team was designed around Kopitar for the past decade, and it remains to be seen whether Kopitar can fully adapt to the new style of John Stevens, which de-emphasizes 200-foot checking and frees up players to be agile and more creative on offense.

Expect to see a slight uptick in goals from Kopitar, but not above 20.  Expect the addition of Cammalleri to increase Kopitar’s assists.  However, I do not expect speedy youngsters like Adrian Kempe or Jonny Brodzinski to be compatible with Kopitar’s style—there’s a reason Kopitar is not on That 70’s Line.

Prediction: 18 goals, 47 assists.