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2016-17 in Review: Anze Kopitar is Going to Bounce Back... Right?

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A diminished Anze Kopitar is a death knell for these Los Angeles Kings, so let’s hope our optimism isn’t misplaced.

NHL: Los Angeles Kings at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

For the last couple months, we’ve been taking a look at the players who made the Los Angeles Kings’ 2016-17 season what it was: a crushing disappointment that got people fired an up-and-down journey which managed to be both unusual and familiar. Rather than the good-bad-future-grade format we’ve used in past seasons, we’ll ask a crucial question and answer it using it what we saw this year.

Anze Kopitar is going to bounce back... right?

Being the captain of the Los Angeles Kings used to be fun. You got to lead teams which were young and exciting. You lifted Stanley Cups and didn’t touch Campbell Bowls. Expectations were modest, and gosh darn it, you met them. After those Cups, though, it got real stressful for Dustin Brown. And if you’re Anze Kopitar, dealing with the pressures of leading a known contender, leading your team in scoring for the ninth straight time, and leading the list of largest contracts in Los Angeles Kings history? It’s not gonna be fun until you get back toward the top. And Kopitar and the Kings didn’t get close last season.

This season might have been a blip on the radar for Kopitar, who in past seasons was consistently excellent even when the Kings weren’t. On the off chance that this 52-point season isn’t just a one-off, though, let’s break it down.

First, the bad news. Anze Kopitar is turning 30 in two days! I mean, it’s good news because Anze Kopitar probably gets incredible birthday gifts, but it’s also bad news from an aging perspective. There’s a rather stark quote from Eric Tulsky’s excellent series on player aging a few years back:

“We now have an estimate of how even strength scoring ability changes through a player's 30's. On average, players retain about 90% of their scoring through age 29, but the drop from there is pretty sharp -- they hit 80% at age 31, 70% at age 32-33, and 60% at age 35.”

That wall Kopitar hit last season in terms of scoring numbers? That was 80% of a 70-point pace, which Kopitar had averaged in his prior four seasons. Even if you expected 29-year-old Kopitar to lose a few points as expected by Eric T.’s model, I don’t think we expected that sharp a drop.

Corsi drops off in a similar fashion as aging occurs, and though Kopitar’s drop from 57.4% to 54.6% seems similarly dramatic, it’s also a drop that took him from top-10 in the NHL to... still top-50 in the NHL (min. 41 games). Jarome Iginla’s presence also had a far more influential effect on his possession numbers than aging possibly could have.

The good news, on the other hand, is that third piece you see above: “Which types of players age gracefully?” Anze Kopitar fits that bill perfectly. His skills do not lie in speed, or shooting in bulk, or agility, or other skills which will dramatically drop off with age. It’s easy to say Anze Kopitar “lost a step” last year because his point total, but it’s generally tough to notice the impact of age from season to season.

Putting aside age, then, what impacted his performance, and what are the chances of him recovering in that area?

  • lower shooting percentage on fewer shots. Kopitar’s career shooting percentage entering 2016-17 was 12.4%, and he’d never been below 10% in a full season. But after seasons of 14.5%, 11.9%, and 14.1% shooting, Kopitar’s shooting percentage dipped to 8% last season. He gets 18 goals with his career average S% and 21 with his 2015-16 S%. This happened to a whole lot of other Kings in past seasons, but never Kopitar, and I don’t see any reason for him to be equally snakebitten this year. However, shooting percentage can decline over time, and Kopitar’s shot rate dropped off this season as well. Odds are good that more pucks will find the net, but how many?

CHANCES OF RECOVERY: high... though don’t bank on a return to 14%.

  • more shots against. Kopitar allowed 50.8 shot attempts per 60 minutes (or Corsi Against per 60 minutes) at 5v5 play this season. This was despite playing from behind in most games, which normally results in fewer shots against. Jarome Iginla was a major factor, as Iginla was on ice for 58.3 CA/60 with the Kings this year. (No regular Kings forward had a CA/60 above 53.) Kopitar had already seen a step back in this area, though. After allowing just 43.1 shot attempts per 60 minutes in 2014-15 (tied with Marian Gaborik for best on the team), that total increased to 46.4 per 60 in 2015-16. A switch to John Stevens behind the bench might prevent Kopitar’s ability to be as stingy as he and his linemates have been in past seasons, but there’s no question that ditching Iginla will help in this area.

CHANCES OF RECOVERY: medium... but that’s mostly based on past history.

  • weaker linemates. The Kings never replaced Milan Lucic, and no one felt it more than Kopitar. His four most common linemates at even strength were Gaborik, Brown, Dwight King, and Trevor Lewis, none of whom are first-line players at this stage of their career. This year, Michael Cammalleri appears to be positioned as a common winger for Kopitar, which should help his assist numbers. And with King gone and Gaborik out for an undetermined period, Kopitar might get more ice time with Tanner Pearson or Tyler Toffoli. Still, Kopitar may never have linemates as strong as he did at the start of this decade.

CHANCES OF RECOVERY: low... unless Stevens likes playing Jeff Carter on the wing.

  • fatigue and/or injury. Kopitar sustained an injury to his upper body in November, and though Kopitar dismissed the impact of his lingering arm/hand injuries after the season ended...

... it’s really tempting to factor that in to his performance in 2016-17. His scoring totals before the injury weren’t particularly impressive (8 points in 15 games), but they bottomed out after he missed three games in the middle of November, and his on-ice results did the same after being typically strong in the season’s first month.

Quite a few people have also attributed Kopitar’s struggles to playing in the World Cup of Hockey and an Olympics qualifying tourney before training camp. I do buy that; after all, Kopitar’s 2014-15 campaign (after a similarly short summer) had many of the hallmarks of this year’s struggles. He saw his shot totals decrease, his on-ice goals-against numbers increase, and his team miss the playoffs. (If you read our season review from 2015, you’ll see some familiar talking points and some worries about a 30-year-old Kopitar.)

CHANCES OF RECOVERY: high... but good luck figuring out just how much of a difference that made.

There is one more parallel to that ugly 2014-15 season that helps close this review for us. He had 19 points in his final 20 games in 2014-15; he had 17 points in his final 20 games in 2016-17. That strong finish in 2014-15 ended up forecasting an award-winning 2015-16, and I do believe we’re going to see a bounceback from Kopitar this year as well. Can he get all 22 of those missing points back? It’s gonna be tough. But as he enters the second year of his contract, there are a lot of reasons to expect that Kopitar will have more fun as the captain in 2017-18.