LOS ANGELES — Near the end of the abbreviated 2013 regular season, and extending into the playoffs, Los Angeles Kings star center Anze Kopitar was in the deep, dark depths of the longest scoring slump in his National Hockey League career, lasting 34 games, give or take a few.
In the playoffs, Kopitar scored just three goals and contributed only six assists for nine points in 18 games.
Although he was just fine in the defensive zone, gone from his game was that explosive first step, the strength on the puck, and the ability to protect it along the boards and in the corners.
Last June, after the Kings were eliminated from the 2013 Western Conference Final in five games by the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks, Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi had this to say about Kopitar:
He’s on the West Coast here, and until he scored that goal [during the first round of the 2012 playoffs] against St. Louis, [when he went in alone on Blues goaltender Brian Elliott, stopped, moved the puck to his left, and slipped the puck into the net for a highlight-reel goal], people didn’t know who he was. Heck, maybe even the other teams didn’t know who he was. This year? One of the by-products of that is him, [Drew] Doughty, and [Jonathan] Quick—they get circled [on a team’s dry ink board before a game].
Now you’re going to draw the toughest assignments. You’re going to draw [top defensemen like St. Louis blue liners Alex] Pietrangelo and [Jay] Bouwmeester on the back end. Just like the team faced different challenges, the players faced different challenges, and it was harder on him, just like it was harder on the team.
This kid, like Drew, and so many others, he is far from having maximized his potential. I have no doubt he’s going to figure it out. He just had a different challenge that he never experienced before in his career.
I’ve got the utmost faith that he’s going to think, ‘you know what? I realize what this is all about. If I’m going to be a top player in this league for a long time, that goes with the turf.
On the eve of the Kings’ first on-ice session during their 2013 training camp, Lombardi is singing much the same tune about Kopitar.
“This kid’s not even in his prime yet,” said Lombardi. “I think, clearly, after winning the Cup, now your top players get circled. [Other teams] are keenly aware of what they can accomplish. Your opposition takes sharper focus, in terms of making it hard for you, and these are challenges he’s never faced before.”
“It’s one thing to break into the league on a [team that’s not very good], but slowly gets better, but now, when he’s accomplished what he’s accomplished, both as a team, and as an individual, that’s a very different challenge,” added Lombardi. “The one thing about him that makes those [slumps], I guess, tolerable, is that he’s a 200-foot player. That’s the beauty of him. A lot of players, when they’re not scoring, start to cheat, so their whole game goes away, like a [baseball player] who’s not hitting, all of a sudden, he can’t field. He never sacrifices his responsibilities in his own end. He’s probably one of the most underrated defensive players in this league.”
Noting that Kopitar’s defensive game never faltered while he struggled offensively, at this point in my exclusive interview with Lombardi, I interjected that I agreed with him about Kopitar’s defensive game, so much so that he received one of my top votes for the 2013 Frank J. Selke Trophy, awarded to the best defensive forward in the league each year.
“Well, he should, and you’re dead on,” Lombardi replied. “I don’t want to say he’s [Pavel] Datsyuk, but he’s got a Datsyuk-like game, in that it’s complete, and he’s tough to play against, so a Selke vote is right on.”
During the playoffs especially, Kopitar was pressing, which did not help his game.
“[Kopitar was pressing] because he wanted to help the team win, and he never does anything for himself,” Lombardi noted. “He’s the type of guy who doesn’t want to let his teammates down.”
Looking forward, although he is firmly established in the NHL, as Lombardi pointed out, Kopitar is not yet in his prime, and that includes the fact he is still maturing, physically.
“Don’t forget that his body is still maturing, and that long grind of so many games—that’s an adjustment also,” Lombardi stressed. “But just looking at him, and I haven’t seen the [conditioning] test results, but these kids continue to grow, right in front of you, reminding you that they’re far from being totally mature, as men.”
“Every year, I see him and Doughty,” Lombardi added. “They come in, and you can see that they’re starting to fill out, and get definition. Just looking at Kopitar, he looks very different than he did five years ago, I can tell you that.”
As the Kings begin a new journey with a new season fast approaching, Kopitar is the least of Lombardi’s concerns.
“When you’re looking at things, as a general manager, you see him struggling, and you’re concerned,” Lombardi noted. “But I’m never concerned that this kid is going to get out of it. He’s just too firmly grounded in the right values. If anything, he’s guilty of trying too hard, and putting too much pressure on himself, and I’ll take that any day.”
“Quite frankly, I don’t worry about him at all,” Lombardi added. “I really don’t. He’s such a pro. He cares immensely about this team.”
“He’ll figure it out.”
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