Today, the National Hockey League announced the finalists for the Hart Trophy, given by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association to the league’s MVP. It’s been a very long time since a member of the Los Angeles Kings was a finalist. Then again, it’s been a very long time since a member of the Los Angeles Kings was this good over a full season.
Kopitar is the first MVP finalist for the Kings since Wayne Gretzky in 1990-91, and though he probably won’t be the second King to win it (after Gretzky in 1989), it’s a special moment for a player who was underappreciated for a long time. He’s up for the Hart alongside the New Jersey Devils’ Taylor Hall and the Colorado Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon.
The diligent, detailed staff of the Kings compiled a whole bunch of statistics to show how special Anze Kopitar’s season was, and it probably took them a really long time, so you should go read them. We could also list off all the reasons Kopitar deserves to be a Hart finalist, but that debate is exhausting for everyone involved. (Connor McDavid isn’t losing any sleep over this and he’ll win a couple more Harts when all is said and done, so Oilers fans... I promise, it’s fine.) So we’ll save the numbers for later on this one.
Anze Kopitar was involved in pretty much every significant moment for the Kings this season. Kopitar took the first faceoff in China, during LA’s preseason trip to grow the game overseas. When Tyler Toffoli scored a memorable game-winning goal with 0.4 seconds to go in overtime in Bostson, he had to thank Kopitar for winning the faceoff clean. When the Kings finally got a win over Vegas, Kopitar had the game-tying game in the final 30 seconds, and he scored the highlight-reel goal to put LA out of reach in their rematch. He had LA’s first four-goal game in a very long time, and he set up Dustin Brown to get one of his own. Kopitar was an All-Star, he led the team in goals and assists and points, and heck, he was the only guy to crack two points in the playoffs.
He also contributed to almost every other individual’s storyline this season. John Stevens’ success, Alex Iafallo’s debut, Dustin Brown’s resurgence, Jonathan Quick’s Jennings Trophy, the team’s endurance of a Jeff Carter injury, Drew Doughty’s career-high point total... Kopitar had a huge hand in pretty much all of it. Shoot, if you’re feeling generous, you can include Adrian Kempe’s improved discipline/defense in there, because you know who they told him to use as an example. Every season has a story, and this year, it was Anze Kopitar, full stop.
It’s also fun to think about what Kopitar did to end up here. He endured an incredibly difficult first season as captain, watching his team miss the playoffs, his coach get fired, and his productivity plunge as his salary skyrocketed. Kopitar was paid $13 million this year to lead the Los Angeles Kings back to the playoffs, and he did it. We’ve watched Kopitar through thick and thin, seen doubters question his ability to take over games and elevate teammates, cheered as he led a scrappy bunch of underdogs to a seventh-place Olympic finish, exulted as he won an individual award for the first time in 2016 (and did it again), and we’ve observed him do all of this in the most graceful, quietly determined manner possible.
Anze Kopitar is a finalist to be the Most Valuable Player in the National Hockey League. It’s pretty great.