EL SEGUNDO, CA — With less than two weeks left in the 2013-14 National Hockey League season, Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar is finally getting some well-deserved consideration for the Frank J. Selke Trophy, awarded annually to the NHL’s best defensive forward.
Indeed, such consideration is overdue by two or three years. In fact, yours truly has voted for Kopitar as a finalist for the Selke Trophy (voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association) in each of the last three seasons.
This year, unless something drastic happens before the end of the regular season, Kopitar will get my top vote for the Selke Trophy, as he has been the league’s best defensive forward this season.
But don’t just take my word for it.
“Everyone appreciates what he does on the ice,” said veteran left wing Marian Gaborik. “He should be nominated for the Selke.”
“Kopitar, I think, is probably the best two-way player in the game right now,” said veteran defenseman Willie Mitchell. “I’ve played with [center Ryan] Kesler in Vancouver, and no disrespect to [him], but the last couple of years, it’s how Kopi controls the game through the middle of the ice.”
“It’s just incredible what he does for our hockey club down low, on the wall,” added Mitchell. “No one can get the puck off of him. He uses his big body, big reach, sticking his big ass out there—seriously, right? He protects the puck. Then, he comes in, and you see him on the power play. It’s like, just give him the puck. There could be two, three guys on him, but he still finds a way to enter the zone. He fights those guys off, and gets it set up on the offensive side.”
Kopitar owes his tremendous defensive play to former Kings head coach Terry Murray, who pushed and prodded him to learn how to play a full, 200-foot game.
“He’s been lucky to have some coaches along the way who’ve really stressed defense,” Mitchell noted. “Now he’s finding his game in all facets of [it], offensively and defensively.”
This season, Kopitar has played in 76 games, scoring 24 goals and adding 39 assists for 63 points, with a +30 plus/minus rating, a 53.1 percent face-off win percentage, average time on ice of 21:01, and 22 penalty minutes.
Add all that up and what do you get?
“As a defenseman, if you ask any of [the other Kings defensemen]—defensemen and centers are what breaks a forecheck, and if you ask any of the defensemen on our team, ‘if you could play with a center all night, who would it be?’ It would be Kopi, in a heartbeat,” said Mitchell. “He’s always in the right place, down low, to [help you] make that easy little [breakout pass]. He’s just a complete player.”
“I said it a long time ago, and people laughed at me,” added Mitchell. “If you look at [Detroit Red Wings center Pavel] Datsyuk, [a three-time Selke winner], and [Red Wings left wing Henrik] Zetterberg, that’s who he is. He’s that good. If you watch every little clip, who do you see down by the goal line? That’s Kopi. But then, somehow, he’s on the other end of the ice, leading the rush.”
“He skates very, very well. He doesn’t look fast, but he’s really fast, for a big man, kind of like [former Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Mario] Lemieux. If you look at him, you say, ‘oh, he’s not that fast.’ But he’s actually moving really quickly. I can’t say enough good things about him. He’s a complete player for us, and just an excellent teammate, too. A very humble guy.”
At least one former teammate agrees.
“I think he should be a Selke finalist every year,” former Kings and current Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi told Curtis Zupke of NHL.com. “He’s very underrated. He has never sacrificed any defense for his offensive side of the game, even though he easily could with his skill set. But he’s the type of guy who’s always in the right position.”
Kopitar just might get enough support to become one of the three finalists for the Selke Trophy this season. He will likely be up against Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron, who won it in 2011-12, and Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews, who won the award last season.
Both are tremendous two-way forwards, although Bergeron is considered by many to be the better defensive player of the two. Both are outstanding face-off men, with Bergeron winning 58.7 percent of his face-offs, while Toews has won 57.2 percent—they have an advantage over Kopitar in this facet of the game.
Among the three players, Toews gets the nod on the offensive side of the puck this season, while Bergeron and Kopitar have been stronger on the defensive side of the puck.
But where Kopitar steps away from Bergeron and Toews this season has been in puck possession–his play along the boards and in the corners. something Mitchell pointed out earlier in this story. He has been next to impossible to knock off the puck, protecting it masterfully, and he has had an uncanny ability to wrest the puck away from opposing forwards and defensemen, using his size, strength and long reach.
Indeed, Kopitar’s ability to protect the puck and make strong defensive plays down low, around his own net, is because he has improved his strength and conditioning every year—he has learned to use his 6-4, 224-pound frame to his advantage this season. His size, strength and speed gives him an edge over Bergeron and Toews, in terms of what he has been able to do defensively, this year.
That said, it should be noted that the Selke Trophy, which was first awarded after the 1977-78 season, has been awarded to a player from a team based in the Pacific Time Zone just once—Kesler in 2010-11. Moreover, players from teams not based in the Eastern Time Zone have won the award just eight times.
In other words, don’t be surprised if Kopitar is a fairly distant third in the Selke voting, or even out of the running as a finalist all together, given that players on teams based in the Eastern Time Zone still have a tremendous advantage, so much so that Bergeron and maybe even Toews should have an easy path to winning the Selke Trophy this season.
When asked for his thoughts on Kopitar’s chances to win the award, Mitchell smirked and replied, “market, brand, East Coast bias, right?”
“I do think [Kopitar] doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves playing out West,” Scuderi told NHL.com. “I don’t know if it’s the time difference. I don’t know what it is, but if he was playing in the East, he’d have a lot more attention showered on him.”
No doubt about it.
Despite all that, Kopitar is not concerning himself with any of the chatter about him and the Selke Trophy.
“Right now is not the time to talk about it,” he said. “We’re all focused on making the playoffs right now. There’s a bigger award that we’re going to play for. When it’s all said and done, maybe I’ll think about that.”
“I’ve said it before,” he added. “If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I’m not here to play for the Selke. I’m here to play for something else. That’s my main goal.”
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