LOMBARDI ON KOPITAR: Los Angeles Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi talks about his star center, Anze Kopitar, and his struggles this season after starting the year on fire. Part 2 of a series. Look for part 3 early next week.
LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings started the 2009-10 season on fire, as did center Anze Kopitar.
The Kings were scoring goals in bunches, as the line of left wing Ryan Smyth, right wing Justin Williams and Kopitar were torching just about every opponent they faced.
Kopitar was largely responsible for that, as he opened the season on a serious tear with fourteen goals and seventeen assists for 31 points in the team’s first 21 games (October 3 – November 14, 2009).
Indeed, with Smyth going hard for loose pucks and consistently parking himself in front of the opposition’s net, Kopitar found himself with more room to maneuver in the offensive zone, giving him more scoring chances.
But it was much more than Smyth that made Kopitar the scoring terror that he was early in the season.
Off-season conditioning and strength work added muscle and endurance to Kopitar’s 6-3, 222-pound frame. That gave him more speed and power to get past defenders and to help him win more loose puck battles.
But when Smyth went down with a rib injury and missed six weeks starting in mid-November, Kopitar went down, too, virtually disappearing from the scoresheet. In fact, from November 11 (a few games before Smyth was injured) to December 7, Kopitar did not score a goal—a thirteen-game goal-scoring drought.
Since November 16, the first game Smyth missed due to the injury, Kopitar has scored just four goals and has added ten assists for fourteen points in 26 games, way, way off the 1.48 points per game pace he set to begin the season.
Conventional wisdom has been that Smyth’s absence was the primary reason for Kopitar’s huge slump. But don’t try telling that to Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi, even though he was scratching his head about the situation as well.
“I can’t deny that I’ve asked myself if one guy [could make that much of a difference],” Lombardi said during a recent interview. “I’ve got to admit I was a little confused by that myself. I did the same thing you did. I talked to hockey people and asked, ‘is it possible that one guy who was leading the league in scoring then gets six points in thirteen games, [could be because one player (Smyth) goes out of the lineup]?’”
Lombardi then went to an expert for help.
“I actually cheated,” he said. “I had a little communication with 99. [Wayne Gretzky] was part of the greatest combination that ever played. You could put him up with [Bryan] Trottier-[Mike] Bossy, [Jari] Kurri-Gretzky, [Igor] Larionov-[Sergei] Makarov—probably the greatest combinations ever. So I had a little dialogue with 99, but I can’t share it with you.”
“I’ve got some great hockey people on my staff and we’re all watching it and [scratching our heads],” he added. “I thought ‘what the hell, I’m going to go to the well here.’ [Gretzky is] an alumnus, so he should give us something here, right? He’s our most prestigious alumnus! I should be entitled to talk to him! Every other organization has guys they can get on the phone and say, ‘hey, what’s going on here?’”
Lombardi said that Kopitar is still young and is still learning.
“First of all, it’s a curse,” Lombardi explained. “Voodoo. As soon as a guy gets put on the cover of The Hockey News, it’s like Sports Illustrated. He goes right into the tank. That’s funny how that happens time and again. But you know what it represents? When a kid rockets up to the top of the scoring chart, a number of things can happen and I’ve seen it cut both ways. Boom. He goes out of the gate, he’s twenty games into the season, he looks at the scoring chart and thinks, ‘holy smoke, I’m leading the league in scoring.’”
“Do you know the impact that has? You and I, maybe we can imagine [what that is like], but neither one of us can even begin to really experience it,” Lombardi elaborated. “It’s like, holy smoke! You’re from Slovenia—not only do you play in the league, but ‘I’m leading the National Hockey League in scoring,’ [ahead of San Jose Sharks center Joe] Thornton and [Washington Capitals left wing Alexander] Ovechkin.”
Reaching those lofty heights at such a young age has its potential pitfalls.
“I’ve seen kids get up there and they want to stay there so bad that they’ll do anything for points,” said Lombardi. “The celebrity can affect you. ‘I want to stay here at all costs.’ [You] start seeing the signs—taking long shifts, staying out on the power play, looking at referees, trying to pick up that extra assist, going to the public relations guy after the game [to get the scoring changed on a goal].”
“So I’ve seen kids totally go that way where they like it so much that they [think they have to stay up there] at all costs and they completely forget about the team, eventually degenerating into a selfish [player],” added Lombardi.
But not Kopitar.
“That, I know for sure, is nothing that’s part of [Kopitar],” Lombardi stressed. “That ain’t happening and I’ll go to my grave saying it’ll never happen. This kid is way too solid, too well-grounded, he cares about this franchise. That is not happening.”
“I do think he puts pressure on himself,” Lombardi added. “This is where I kind of cheated when I talked to 99 [about being at the top], particularly when he was young. How do you stay there? There’s a certain insight.”
“I think he puts the right pressure on himself. I think he felt that he had to keep it going if we’re going to win. He felt the responsibility. Fortunately, we got through it.”
The right pressure? Perhaps. But is Kopitar putting too much pressure on himself?
“[Kopitar] wants to stay there for the right reasons,” said Lombardi. “But you start putting pressure on yourself to stay there. It’s good to put that pressure on, but it’s the wrong type of pressure to succeed. Not the wrong type of pressure in that he becomes a [selfish] jerk, but he starts gripping the stick a little harder, he gets a few bad bounces—then he was getting opportunities but he didn’t even look like a goal scorer, hitting goaltenders right in the pads. You really start squeezing it bad. It’s like a .350 hitter [in baseball] who can’t get out of a slump. Then it just snowballs.”
“Then he hears the cat calls, that he can’t do it without Ryan Smyth,” added Lombardi. “He loves Ryan, but then he thinks, ‘I can do this without Ryan. I have to do this without Ryan.’ Then he starts pressing more.”
Another factor is that once Kopitar got his name in lights at the top of the NHL’s scoring list, he became a huge target for every team in the league.
“Every other team comes in and they’ve got to stop [Kopitar],” Lombardi noted. “Or, it’s ‘nobody respects LA, and this Kopitar kid is pretty good.’ But now you’re winning, and here’s the big guy, so [other teams focus on shutting him down]. Now they’re doing to us what our coaches have to do to their guys all the time.”
“It’s a nice problem to have, that the other team is worried about one of your guys,” Lombardi added. “But now you’re drawing the best checkers. Now you’re drawing the best defensemen and they’re paying attention. It gets a little harder and they take satisfaction in shutting you down. ‘Here’s the top scorer in the league. To win this game, we’ve got to keep this guy off the board.’ It becomes a mission.”
For a young player who is an emerging star, that comes with the territory in the NHL.
“This is all part of the growth process,” said Lombardi. “[Second-year defenseman Drew] Doughty is getting run more now. He has to learn to deal with it—they’re coming after you now.”
For Kopitar, the task now is learning how to handle success.
“We’re heading in the right direction, but we’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Lombardi emphasized. “You’ve got the macro level of the team—believing in itself, and you’ve got the micro battles that kids go through—Kopitar learning to deal with success, Doughty learning [about getting run more], [second-year goalie Jonathan] Quick learning to deal with the workload and [rising] expectations. They’ve all got micro challenges.”
“This is all part of becoming good pros and a good team,” Lombardi elaborated. “As far as the kid’s character, all of these kids have challenges. I really do think all of them, and in this instance, Kopitar, I go back—does he care about the right things? Quite frankly, I talked to him the other day, and I’m more [convinced] than ever that this kid cares.”
“He wants this organization to be successful, so I’ve got every [bit of confidence] that he’s going to fight his way through. It might not be tomorrow. It still might take time, but I really believe he’s going to become [one of those unselfish players]. I really believe that.”
Going back to how much Smyth’s presence or absence had to do with Kopitar’s offensive production, or lack thereof, Kopitar was actually getting the job done without Smyth, even at the start of the season—it was not just Smyth that made him the offensive force that he was at the time. Indeed, the added strength, conditioning, another year of experience under his belt and the confidence that came from it were a big part of Kopitar’s early season success.
But since mid-November, Kopitar has not looked as fast or as strong, and has looked tired out on the ice, at times—he seems to have worn down at least a bit since the season began.
Lombardi has noticed that as well and pointed out that Kopitar still has a long way to go in terms of his strength and conditioning.
“[Kopitar] and Doughty—they’re only in average shape,” Lombardi lamented. “They went from being our [least] conditioned guys this year to average. So there’s a little bit of that in there, too. So for [Kopitar], you want to go to the top of the league in scoring and they’re going to come after you now? Now you’re going to learn that, next summer, you’d better be the top conditioned guy.”
“When I talk about building a team, those subtle signs, our best player has got to get to the top of that list in the summer,” Lombardi stressed. “Those guys were at the bottom. They were our best players, but they’re our worst conditioned guys. This year, they made great progress, but they went from brutal to average, both Kopitar and Doughty.”
Can you imagine what Kopitar and Doughty would be like at top physical condition?
“The good news is, there’s still upside,” said Lombardi. “Those two guys aren’t anywhere near their potential. I think that’s what you see now and you’ve said it. [Kopitar] looks tired, at times because they’re leaning on [him] a little more and [he’s] got a little pressure on him, so that make you [more] tired.”
“When he’s going to get it, I’m not sure. But I believe he will. He’s got the right kind of pride.”
Frozen Royalty by Gann Matsuda is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. You may copy, distribute and/or transmit any story or audio content published on this site under the terms of this license, but only if proper attribution is indicated. The full name of the author and a link back to the original article on this site are required. Photographs, graphic images, and other content not specified are subject to additional restrictions. Additional information is available at: Frozen Royalty – Licensing and Copyright Information.