LOS ANGELES — Going into the 2009-10 season, one of the keys to the success for the Los Angeles Kings was that their core players must be better than last season, especially center Anze Kopitar.
Although the Kings are just eleven games into the season, to say that Kopitar has shown improvement would be like saying ice is cold.
To coin a phrase, oh what a difference a year makes.
Kopitar has melted the ice to start the season, scoring eight goals while contributing eleven assists for nineteen points in the team’s first eleven games.
To say that is a far cry from how he started the 2008-09 season would be, once again, stating the obvious.
Last season, Kopitar got off to a slow start, scoring a goal and adding six assists for seven points in the Kings’ first eleven games. He did not record his nineteenth point until December 5, 2008, in a 5-4 shootout loss to the Edmonton Oilers. Six days later, he finally scored his eighth goal of the season, in a 6-2 win over the St. Louis Blues.
Not only has Kopitar totally eclipsed his start to the 2008-09 season, through games played on October 25, 2009, Kopitar leads the National Hockey League in scoring.
Yes, you read that correctly. There is no need to rub your eyes, clean your eyeglasses or get your vision checked.
Kopitar’s early scoring tear has him ranked ahead of the likes of Washington Capitals superstar Alexander Ovechkin (nine goals, eight assists for seventeen points) and San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton (three goals, thirteen assists for sixteen points).
Kopitar is also tied for second in goal scoring and is all alone in second place in assists.
Although it is not at all likely that Kopitar will end the season as the league leader in any of those offensive categories, it gives the Kings confidence and a reason for optimism. After all, when was the last time the Kings had a player who was capable of leading the league in scoring?
One has to look back to the 1993-94 season when The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, finished the season with 38 goals and 92 assists for 130 points, leading the NHL in scoring.
Before the season began, Kings head coach Terry Murray made it clear that the Kings needed more from its young core of skilled players. But he also made it clear that Kopitar has to step up more than the rest.
“Your top players are key guys,” said Murray. “Your key guys have to go out and perform at a high level in critical situations at critical times during the season. Kopitar in particular has got to have a really big bite of this hockey club.”
The addition of Ryan Smyth to the lineup has also had a huge impact, as his offensive skill, his constant presence in front of the net and his ability to get his nose dirty along the boards and in the corners gives Kopitar another scoring threat on his line and creates more space for him to maneuver.
“I think there’s a lot of energy and chemistry on the line and Smyth’s a huge part of that,” said Murray. “His game is that same look where he’s playing around the net, taking it to the net, making little plays in the blue paint where he forces players to come and pound away, looking for loose pucks and rebounds. He has to get some of the credit for it.”
But Murray and President/General Manager Dean Lombardi also deserve some credit, as they pushed their players to improve their strength and conditioning over the summer, which has been quite evident in Kopitar’s hot start.
Perhaps the best example of how added strength and speed has helped Kopitar came on October 22 against the Dallas Stars at Staples Center when he flew up right wing with the puck. Using his speed, he powered his way past Stars defenseman Stephane Robidas, turned and moved to the front of the net where he used his strength to fight off Robidas and his defensive partner, Trevor Daley, before he slipped the puck past Dallas goaltender Alex Auld, just inside the left goal post.
It was a spectacular, highlight-reel goal, to be sure. However, it was one that Kopitar likely would not have scored in previous years because he did not have the strength and speed to do so.
“No, he doesn’t [make that play],” said Murray. “[Instead], he ends up going around behind the net. That’s a hockey player’s play. That’s a powerful play. It takes a very courageous player to make that kind of strong move. Boy, for a young guy to start playing like that and showing that kind of performance, that’s pretty exciting stuff.”
“He has to do it, he has to make his mind up that ‘I’m going to do it, I’m going to take the puck to the net,’” added Murray. That’s one of the most courageous plays in the game and he did that twice tonight. He walked out of the corner on another goal.”
As stated earlier, Murray had a lot to do with Kopitar’s improved physical abilities.
“[I hope] this off-season does great things for the players we have in our organization, meaning that the off-season program, the commitment to doing things so that you’re going to mature physically and come into the training camp totally ready, physically strong, confident and just build from that solid foundation that you’ve put in place through hard work in the summertime,” Murray said last June.
“I’ve seen it over the years, with players coming in, when you’re physically sound and fit and really strong, you have tremendous confidence when you step onto the ice,” Murray added. “That, in itself, will accelerate and develop you into a better player and a better team. That’s what I want to have coming into the training camp this year.”
But even more responsible for Kopitar becoming stronger and faster is Lombardi, who was even more pointed this past summer, calling out Kopitar and challenging him dedicate himself to getting into the gym during the off-season.
“When I see a lot of these kids, but in particular [center Anze Kopitar’s] case, you talk about a culture, we have a lot of work to do in terms of our best players learning to prepare in the off-season, learning how to prepare as pros physically and mentally,” Lombardi stressed during an interview last June. “And you can’t be prepared mentally if you haven’t prepared physically because if you show up in training camp ready to go, it means you have taxed yourself mentally and challenged yourself to get to the next level.”
“We can talk all we want about ‘let’s go out and get this guy and that guy and this guy,’ Lombardi added. “But unless Kopitar, as one of our key players and with the commitment we made to him last summer in terms of locking him up, gets on board and learns that he has to take on [physical center Ryan] Getzlaf [of the Anaheim Ducks], and that means preparing in the summer and showing up in top shape where not only are you at the top of your game, but we also expect you to set an example for the all the other young players considering he wears an ‘A’ [as an assistant captain]. That is the most critical thing to this franchise.”
Although Lombardi has indicated that he was hoping for more from Kopitar over the summer, Kopitar is reaping the benefits of his off-season workout regimen.
“I guess I prepared for the season a little better and I’m playing the hockey that I learned awhile ago and that I’ve showed that I can play,” said Kopitar. “Now, everything’s clicking.”
“I worked out hard,” added Kopitar. “I do feel good on the ice. I feel strong and pretty fast, too. It’s working for me. Getting older, you get stronger and you get to know your body a little better, you know what to do a little more and you learn from your mistakes and weaknesses and you try to improve on that. I think I did it pretty good this summer.”
Kopitar started the 2009-10 season with four goals and six assists for ten points in the first five games and he has not slowed down, scoring four goals and adding five assists for nine points in his last five games.
He also recorded his first NHL hat trick against Dallas on October 22.
Can Kopitar keep up this torrid pace? The odds are against it. Nevertheless, the Kings will need him to improve significantly on his 2008-09 numbers (27 goals and 39 assists for 66 points) if they expect to be a playoff team this season.
“In particular for Kopitar, he’s been playing really good in all the games this year, the line has been very good and now, he caps it off tonight with a big performance,” said Murray.
“[He needs to] keep going,” added Murray. “We’re going to need that kind of effort every night.”
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