With the 2018-19 NHL season firmly in the rear view mirror, it’s time to look back at what we learned about the players of the Los Angeles Kings. How did they fare in a down season? What’s next for each of them? Who will still be here on opening day? Join us as we take a look back at the season, try to figure out what went wrong, and see where we go from here. Today we look at team captain Anze Kopitar, his leadership acumen, and why the NHL and even his own fanbase undervalues one of the greatest Kings ever.
Anze Kopitar is a mystery to me.
I’ve seldom seen a player undervalued by the national media and his home fanbase at the level Kopitar is year after year.
One look around Staples Center and you can see he’s not loved at the level of Drew Doughty or Tyler Toffoli or Jeff Carter. An entrance poll of people entering the arena in Kopitar sweaters shows that his popularity is easily dwarfed by the others. It makes you wonder.
Patrice Bergeron is regularly called the “perfect player” by the NHL. Meanwhile, Kopitar gets robbed of the Hart Trophy in a year where he had 31 more points than any other player on his own team and despite being the most dominant and most valuable 200-foot player in almost every game he played. We take him for granted and I can’t figure out why.
Take these facts into consideration:
- He’s been the leading Kings scorer in 12 out of the last 13 seasons, and usually by a pretty wide margin.
- He was the league’s top scorer in both of the Kings Stanley Cup runs—2012 (tied with Dustin Brown, 20 points) and 2014 (26 points).
- He’s the most decorated Kings player in the last twenty years—two Selke Awards (best defensive forward) in 2016 and 2018 (also three more top five finishes) and a Lady Byng Trophy (most gentlemanly player) in 2018.
The second point alone should make him one of the most revered Kings of all time. Yet, you never hear his name bountied about for a Staples Center statue post-retirement...why?
Maybe it’s because he replaced Dustin Brown as captain. But that can’t be it, because when Kopitar took over in 2016-17, everyone was hoping Brown would be traded or that the incoming Vegas franchise would scoop him up in the expansion draft.
It might be because in his three-season tenure as captain, the Kings have been swept in the playoffs in between missing the playoffs twice.
Perhaps it’s that he’s not spectacular most of the time. Or that he always seems so serious. Who knows?
All I know is that Anze Kopitar is the engine that drives the Kings. But now that the organization is at the proverbial fork in the road, we need to do a deeper dive on the enigma of Kopitar.
SO, WHAT HAPPENED IN 2018-19?
Before we get to that, you have to look at the last handful of seasons. In the last four, Kopitar has been boom or bust. Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. A virtual lesson in duality. Take a look:
2015-16 Kopitar Stat Line (Dr. Jekyll): 81 Games Played, 74 Points (25G, 49A), +34, 16 PIM, 14.1% Shooting Percentage, 20:52 Average Time On Ice, Third Team All Star, Selke Award winner, Lady Byng winner, Hart (8th in the Voting). Kings Record: 48-28-6 (102 points), 2nd in the Pacific Division, Lost First Round (4-1) vs. the San Jose Sharks.
2016-17 Kopitar Stat Line (Mr. Hyde): 76 Games Played, 52 Points (12G, 40A), -10, 28 PIM, 8.0% Shooting Percentage, 20:46 Average Time On Ice, No Top 10 Finishes in Any Major End-of-Season Category. Kings Record: 39-35-8 (86 points), 5th in the Pacific Division, Missed Playoffs.
2017-18 (Kopitar Stat Line (Dr. Jekyll): 82 Games Played, 92 Points (35G, 57A), +21, 20 PIM, 17.5% Shooting Percentage, 22:05 Average Time On Ice, Third Team All Star, Selke Award winner, Lady Byng (4th in the Voting), Hart (3rd in the Voting). Kings Record: 45-29-8 (98 points), 2nd Wild Card Spot, Lost First Round (4-0) vs. Vegas Golden Knights.
2018-19 Kopitar Stat Line (Mr. Hyde): 81 Games Played, 60 Points (22G, 38A), -20, 30 PIM, 14.1 Shooting Percentage, 22:18 Average Time On Ice, No Top 10 Finishes in Any Major End-of-Season Category. Kings Record: 31-42-9 (71 points), 8th in the Pacific Division, 30th in the NHL.
KINGS/KOPITAR SYMBIOTIC RELATIONSHIP
Three-and-a-half years ago, Kopitar was allegedly feuding with management behind the scenes and it looked like he wasn’t going to re-up in LA. Then the Kings gave him an $80 million, eight-year deal that would tie up over one-eighth of the salary cap for years to come.
However, as you can see, as Kopitar goes, so do the Kings. A super-effective Anze Kopitar ensures that the Kings are among the top teams—point-wise—in the division and the league. When he’s lousy, the Kings are lousy. Two hundred combined standings points in the last two Dr. Jekyll years and 157 points in the two Mr. Hyde years. For now, let’s just say the first 66% of Kopitar’s contract hasn’t been real fruitful.
Last year was a decidedly unhappy regular season for this 30th place team. Forget about Carter’s aching lower body issues, Toffoli’s stone hands around the net, or the Tanner Pearson exile—there was an interim coach whose dereliction of duty was so damaging that everyone’s production plummeted (as did their trade value). There were destructive player-coach dramas (Ilya Kovalchuk and Jonathan Quick), trade rumors, young guns not getting playing time (Austin Wagner, Jonny Brodzinski, Matt Luff), pathetic practices, legitimate age and chemistry issues, ongoing special teams woes and, worst of all, old legs. Only Jake Muzzin’s individual brilliance and Jack Campbell’s emergence made things even close to tolerable. Even then it wasn’t wise to be too good (Muzzin) or too bad (Pearson) because those highs and lows got you traded. Everything else felt like the hockey version of that movie where Tom Hanks’ house basically implodes for two hours.
Was any of this Kopitar’s fault?
Conspiracists will tell you that Kopitar’s contract extension included an offseason handshake and wink that guaranteed a “C” on his sweater prior to the January 2016 signing. Now three years into his captaincy, all Kopitar has under his belt are two terrible season finishes and being swept out of the playoffs by a first-year team. Meanwhile, his captaincy predecessor (Dustin Brown) set a somewhat unfair standard of two Stanley Cup finishes in the same stretch of time five years earlier.
Did Kopitar’s passive personality infect the team, making them soft or entitled as has been surmised by the experts paid to analyze teams in a flash? Or was the team already infected with the deadly Caesar Virus where teams get comfortable in their own accolades and are no longer willing to work hard for 82-games, hoping to claw their way into the playoffs? I’m guessing the latter. Well, maybe.
None of us are in the locker room hearing the conversations about those closed door, no coach meetings, but after woeful performances where players looked barely engaged, you’d love to hear more than, “…it simply wasn’t good enough…” game after game after game:
The Kings captain always seems to be in a very passive, passive aggressive mode where he says the “effort needs to be better” or “it’s not good enough.” He never outright demands it. Maybe he knew he wouldn’t get it. So it comes off as more of a suggestion. Like reminding your significant other, “Hey, the garbage hasn’t been taken out for a while.” If broached the right way, his team might shift their passion into overdrive and zero in on the next game, with their heads up, not giving their opponents an inch, while driving through to a well-earned victory. You know, the type of Kings hockey that won two Stanley Cups and a conference final from 2012-14.
With the Kings ripping through three coaches in two years, all of whom were reported to have lost the room, we all expected a little more fire from Kopitar to reassure us all would be fine. After all, the Kings finished with 27 fewer points this season versus last year. How’s that possible? Everyone got old overnight? To quote the captain, his passive, passive aggressive mode “simply wasn’t good enough.”
Leadership will be less of a problem this season with the “accountability coach” Todd McLellan. There are no wonky practices and player bullying with him like there were with Willie Desjardins. McLellan should be good for seven or more wins just by being a real NHL coach This means that Kopitar can do what he usually does best and that’s being one of the current NHL greats.
To be safe, let’s figure it out the big things that Kopitar needs to do to get back to Dr. Jekyll mode…
FIXING THE FUTURE
In a league where reaching 1,000 games is the line of demarcation where elite forwards become regular and start dropping to second and third line players, Kopitar remains an anomaly.
Load Management—Last season, Kopitar averaged highest single season average time on ice per game (22:18) and then followed that up by playing in the IIHF World Championships for his native Slovenia. Maybe not the wisest plan where point-a-game player types peak at age 29 and on average drop off to around 0.6 points-per-game.
Kopitar is different. A high IQ player destined for the hall of fame who always wants the obligation of being dependably great. That’s a different kind of pressure that most players don’t embrace. That’s bringing it every minute, every day, every week, every month, every game, every period. That’s working at the rink long after everyone else has gone home. That’s dealing with a steady stream of rivals saying to themselves before every game, “I’m playing Kopi tonight, I have to give him my best. Or he’s going to dominate me.” That’s dealing with the media and fans who demand your best and are fairly upset when you don’t. Kopitar faces his failures and shies away from the accolades of his successes. But for goodness sakes, Kopi, have you heard of load management?
Load management is “the deliberate temporary reduction of external physiological stressors intended to facilitate global improvements in athlete wellness and performance while preserving musculoskeletal and metabolic health.“ In laymen’s terms, you diminish the total competition time a player takes on to aid recovery and extend performance levels over the long term. The hockey season is a grind and playing over twenty-two minutes a night isn’t so smart when your best player needs to make it to thirty-seven years old without breaking down.
You know who played less on average every game last season than Kopitar?: Jack Muzzin (21:20), Jonathan Toews (21:00), Sidney Crosby (21:00), Alex Ovechkin (20:55), Ryan O’Reilly (20:46), Blake Wheeler (20:43), and Nikita Kucherov (19:58).
You know what time it is? Time to buy a stopwatch. The Kings will need Kopitar as much in 2024 when they are good again. In case of confusion, consult with McLellan. He’s the forward whisperer after all, and based on this WAR study* preserving the captain from the inevitable precipitous production clash is crucial...starting now:
Shoot the Puck—I’m not sure why Kopitar doesn’t shoot more. Kopitar has a lifetime shooting percentage of 12.7 and the last two seasons he racked up two of his better conversion rates of 14.1 (2018-19) and 17.5 (2017-18).
You know who had a lower shooting percentage last season than Kopitar?: Gabriel Landeskog (14.0% / 34G / 243 SOG), Jonathan Huberdeau (13.3% / 30G / 226 SOG), Patrick Kane (12.9% / 44G / 341 SOG), Sebastian Aho (12.3% / 30G / 243 SOG), Patrik Laine (12.2% / 30G / 245 SOG), and Tyler Seguin (9.9% / 33G / 334 SOG).
Shoot more, score more. Seems easy, right?
In 2018-19, he got 200 shots to the net and potted 35 goals. Last season, he put 156 shots on goal resulting in only 22 goals. You don't need a Masters degree in analytics to see that’s a huge drop.
When going to bed at night and/or during pre-game affirmations, Kopitar should repeat the old Wayne Gretzky line, “You miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take.” I recommend repeating it over and over again until it’s etched into his lexicon.
Line Chemistry—It’s fairly evident that Kopitar needs to find a buddy on the left wing. It’s a hole on an otherwise effective top line. The Kings need a top line that clicks on every level. Please let’s give up on the Alex Iafallo Experiment on the top line. The way the Kings announcers dissect his game talking about the little things he does will not pass muster any longer. The “little things” conversation should be reserved for the third and fourth line combinations. I’m sorry, but a 33-point (15G / 18A) left winger doesn’t do enough little things to get 16:50 TOI a night on the first line next to Kopitar.
Surely, the line combinations do not squarely sit on the shoulders of Anze Kopitar. That’s now for McLellan’s coaching staff to figure out. I implore TMac to find a left wing that will give the Kings a potent punch up front. Whether it be a renewed Kovalchuk sitting Ovechkin-style ready to convert the easy stuff, or the über-speedy Wagner picking up smart outlet passes from the Kings blueline, there must be an answer to the chemistry issues on the left wing.
Anze Kopitar remains one of the NHL’s most intelligent players. In late February while the Kings were losing their tenth-straight game I watched him the entire game from some pretty sweet seats at Staples Center. Actually, I couldn’t stop staring at him. We might have even made eye contact if he wasn’t so dialed into the game.
Playing the surging Dallas Stars, Kopitar scored to make it 1-0 and then again to make it 3-2. Even while on the bench for the little he was (he played a whopping 24:22 that night), his gears were turning the entire time. Nothing fazed him. Not Willie D. asleep on the bench letting Brown, Drew Doughty, and him rack up almost 80 minutes of TOI while the young legs of Wagner, Luff, and Brodzinski played less than 30. Not the obvious and predictable overtime loss because the Kings core was overworked again. Not some questionable calls. Not even Jonathan Quick playing solo goalie with virtually no cohesive defense in front of him.
Nothing bothered the captain that night.
He played one of his better games of the year, and even though the Kings couldn’t buy a win for weeks, he was still grinding. He was disruptive. Killing penalties, leading power plays, working the refs, yelling out instructions…he didn’t miss a trick. In other words, the ultimate lead by example guy. Kopitar keeps chugging along undaunted.
About Kopitar, Darryl Sutter famously said, “If you want to win, start with Anze Kopitar. He’s the best all-around centerman that I’ve coached, period. Period. Faceoffs, last minute, first minute, penalty killer. Plays against everybody’s top player, whether it’s a defenseman, a center, a checking role or an offensive role. He plays 20-plus minutes. Doesn’t take penalties. It’s the whole deal. He can play it whatever way we want.”
Times have changed and now we need the evolution of Kopitar to occur. He currently plays like 2014 Kopitar looking for that big contract—same deference to linemates while passing up shots, soaking up too much ice time, and then doubling down in after-season tournaments, same quiet leadership, only with 32-year-old legs that were driving too hard the last two years by coaches woefully over their heads. There were too many games last season where Kopitar looked like he had cement skates on in the third period.
He must adjust to the new NHL and somehow keep himself fresh in crunch time and stop sluffing off bad team performances in post-game scrums.
You can bet in the 2019-20 the trophy-winning, hockey genius, Dr. Jekyll persona will return. As a matter of fact, bet on it. I have.