LOS ANGELES — Ten years ago last June, the Los Angeles Kings’ fortunes were dramatically changed in the annual National Hockey League draft, one that would set them on a course towards finally becoming a Stanley Cup Champion.
In the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, the year that Sidney Crosby was the runaway, consensus first overall selection by the Pittsburgh Penguins, big names like Bobby Ryan, Carey Price, Marc Staal, and T.J. Oshie were all selected in the first round. But perhaps the best player other than Crosby was not selected until the 11th overall pick, when the Kings were on the board.
They selected center Anze Kopitar, a player who has become an elite center, one of the top players in the NHL, and has helped lead the Kings to two Stanley Cup Championships.
Kopitar was selected by Dave Taylor, the former Kings right wing who served as their general manager from April 1997 to April 2006.
“That was a real good draft for us, when you look back at it,” said Taylor, who now serves as Vice President of Hockey Operations for the St. Louis Blues. “A lot of times, when you draft somebody, you see qualities and the type of player you project that they can become. Certainly, Kopitar has become a great player.”
“We had Kopitar [ranked] number three on our list,” added Taylor. “[Then-Director of Amateur Scouting] Al Murray and [then-Assistant Director of Amateur Scouting] Grant Sonier were over in Europe, and they took a trip, I think, from the Czech Republic to Austria, just to see Kopitar play, and he was outstanding.”
“He was the best player on the ice. He was young at the time, only 17 years old. But his birthday is late in the year, in August, so he was still very young for the draft, and he was playing against men. [Murray and Sonier] came back very excited about him.”
How did the Kings nab such a highly coveted prospect with the 11th pick?
“It was interesting because we were picking [11th in the first round], and there were a lot of players that people had as a consensus ahead of Kopitar,” Taylor noted. “Nobody had him that high, so we didn’t feel that we had to [trade] to move up. We felt that there was a real good chance he could [still be available], and if he was, it would be a potential home run for the Kings.”
A big reason Taylor was able to wait to pull the trigger on selecting Kopitar was that few NHL teams had scouted him as extensively as the Kings did because he was from Slovenia, a country not known for producing NHL-caliber players.
“He was from Slovenia, but he was playing in Sweden for Sodertalje,” said Taylor. “He played junior hockey in the Swedish league, and was a very good player. But he also played for Slovenia’s national men’s team, so we had a chance to see him in a lot of different circumstances.”
As an aside, to this day, Taylor is often accused of just being lucky in the 2005 draft, that Kopitar merely “fell into his lap.” Given that it is now clear that the Kings scouted Kopitar extensively and that they had him specifically targeted, that claim can now be put to rest for good.
Taylor was also highly impressed by Kopitar off the ice.
“There was some question about his skating, a little bit,” Taylor recalled. “But for me, what I remember the most was when we went to the [draft] combine and interviewed him, I have never been more impressed by a player then I was by him.”
“He came in, and he was so big,” Taylor added. “Big wrists, big ankles—a big, powerful kid. There wasn’t anything wrong with his skating, in terms of his stride. He just needed a little more strength, and he was going to be fine.”
Taylor also spoke of Kopitar’s character at such a young age, after yours truly mentioned that after my first interview with Kopitar back in 2005, I thought, “his parents did a masterful job raising him.”
“Absolutely, and I felt the same way,” said Taylor. “Very mature. He sat down, right in the middle of the room, looked everybody in the eye, and answered all the questions. His English was excellent, he was very thoughtful, he explained why he went from Slovenia over to Sweden for his hockey, and even after we drafted him, he felt that he should spend one more year in Sweden, and he played for the men’s team in Sodertalje. Once that season was over, he played for Slovenia in the World Championships, and he was scoring against Finland, the Czech Republic—he was the best player, and he was only 18 years old.”
“After that year in Sweden, he came over here and absolutely dominated our rookie tournament—that was my last year [as Kings general manager],” added Taylor. “He showed that he was ready to play in the NHL right away.”
As it turned out, Taylor’s draft assessment of Kopitar couldn’t have been more accurate.
“It was right on,” he said. “You’ve got a big, number one center who can play in the Western Conference, head-to-head against the Sedins, Ryan Getzlaf, Joe Thornton, any anybody else. That’s what he developed into. It took him two years, maybe, to get used to the league. But arguably, he’s one of the best, probably right there with Jonathan Toews as one of the best two-way centers.”
LEAD PHOTO: LA Kings center Anze Kopitar. Photo: David Sheehan/CaliShooterOne Photgraphy.
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