EL SEGUNDO, CA — Through the Los Angeles Kings’ first 29 games of the 2017-18 season, to say that center Anze Kopitar is on a torrid pace would be understating things by a long shot.
Indeed, Kopitar is so hot that he’s on pace to set new career highs in goals, assists and points.
In 29 games this season, Kopitar, who ranks fifth in the National Hockey League in overall scoring, has scored 15 goals and has contributed 19 assists for 34 points, with a +11 plus/minus rating. Not only are his numbers far cries from those he put up last season through the same number of games, but his goal total already exceeds the 12 goals he scored last season.
Kopitar is on pace to score 42 goals with 54 assists, good for 96 points—he is averaging 1.18 points per game.
Kopitar has played pretty much the entire season, to date, with Dustin Brown and Alex Iafallo as line mates, and they jelled, almost immediately.
“[We played well together] right from the start,” said Kopitar. “We had a really good training camp together. I don’t think we scored a whole lot of points in the pre-season games. But we felt like we were moving the puck well, we were reading off each other well, and we can’t forget Alex. He came in and had a strong start, too.”
“I think we complement each other well because Brownie is more of a power forward, and I’m a possession guy. Alex is really good on the forecheck, which creates turnovers and kind of helps Brownie and I get in there and get puck possession that we like playing with. It’s been working, so far.”
Having been reunited with Brown, in particular, has also helped Kopitar.
“We’ve probably played 700-something games together,” said Brown. “You get to know each other pretty well.”
“Right now, we’re just reading really well off each other,” added Brown. “We’ve been on the same page, for the most part. That’s just a by-product of being together for so long, and being motivated.”
Kopitar’s ability to hold onto the puck, protect it, and make plays seems to be even more apparent this season, adding to the reasons for his improved play.
“Kopi is a high possession guy,” said head coach John Stevens. “He’s one of those guys who has the ability to hold the puck, bide time, and people get open away from him. He’s going to have the puck dot-to-boards. Clearly, there are a lot of situations where he can take advantage of his size and smarts, be a presence in the middle of the ice, carry speed through the middle of the ice, end up at the net in the middle of the ice, and get pucks off the wall and end up in the middle of the ice. He’s done a really good job in those areas.”
“From a hockey standpoint, what allows our games to complement each other [is that] he has the ability, one that very few people do, to hold onto the puck with two or three guys on him,” said Brown. “That allows me to get to the net, which is what I’m really good at. When you have a guy who can control the game by himself, that allows me to play my game a little bit more. If you flip-flop that, when I go to the net, I can drag a couple of guys with me, and give him a little more time with the puck.”
“If you look at Kopi, when he’s really good, he has the puck on his stick for a lot of the game,” added Brown.
Kopitar’s improvement in the goal scoring department is due, in part, to the fact that he is shooting the puck considerably more this season, averaging 2.52 shots per game, an average increase of 0.52 shots per game—he is on pace to take 43 more shots this season than he did in 2016-17.
“He’s shooting the puck more. I’ve noticed that because he hasn’t passed it as much,” Brown said, with a grin.
Much has been written about Kopitar’s season-long slump last year, when his offense dried up right from the start of the season, and it stayed that way until the end, making his offensive production this season, that much more eye-opening.
“[Was last year] really frustrating? Very much so,” he said. “Not every day, but there were a couple of times when I didn’t know what to do with myself. A year like that comes, whether you like it or not. Maybe some guys get away with it. I didn’t. But I’m not worried about it anymore.”
“You just really try to grind it out, and stay as positive as you can,” he added. “You can’t get [down] on yourself, that’s for sure. Maybe I was guilty of that a couple of times last year. I wasn’t feeling great, but then your head gets spinning, and that probably has a worse effect on you than you actually think. But again, that’s behind me now.”
Last season, Brown, who faced struggles of his own over the past three seasons, and Kopitar were probably trying to do too much, in terms of trying to carry the team on their shoulders.
“A lot of it, for us—me for the last few years, for him, last year—there was a lot of doubt from outside,” said Brown. “That was part of it. Another part was the two of us thinking that we’ve got to be the guys to do it, every night.”
Stevens indicated that Kopitar’s improved season, for all intents and purposes, began during the off-season.
“I don’t know if there was a point where the light bulb went off,” he said. “I’ve seen Kopi play at a really high level. He was probably the one guy who I thought, if there was a guy who could get his game back, it was him.”
“We felt very optimistic about him throughout the summer, just in the way he was approaching his summer,” he added. “[Strength and conditioning coach] Matt Price went over and spent a week with him. He came back here, at some point in the summer. All indications were that his preparation over the summer was going to put him in a position where he could be a really good player, and what we were hoping to see is what we saw from day one [of training camp].”
“He was a good player the first day on the ice, he was a good player every day in training camp. He and Brownie haven’t skipped a beat. They seem like they have their games back in order, they’ve had great chemistry, right from the get-go. So we’ve been kind of optimistic from the summer on. I don’t think there was any one point where we said, ‘that’s him.’ He’s produced at a really good rate for us, but his quality of play has been there from day one.”
Last, but certainly not least, a factor in Kopitar’s improvement this season is that he’s having fun again.
“I talked to Kopi a lot last year,” Brown noted. “We sit next to each other in the locker room. We sit next to each other on the bus. I think he just wasn’t enjoying the game last year. Every player has been there, at some point in their career. This year, I think he’s just enjoying playing.”
“You can probably say this about our whole team—there’s an element of fun to our game now,” Brown added. “I think it’s more coming to the rink, getting better and having fun. That’s a big part of it.”
Kopitar acknowledged that he was enjoying playing the game again.
“I’m enjoying myself, for sure,” he said. “[I’ve had] a good individual start. A good team start will [help you, too]. It’s a lot more fun than it was last year, from my standpoint, in terms of scoring goals and putting up points. The bottom line is that I’m playing the way I know how to play. Last year was a really bad year. I’ve put it behind me now, and I’m looking ahead.”
“[Last season] was what it was,” he added. “Now, I’m feeling good again, I’m confident on the ice. I think I’m playing hockey at a level that I know I’m capable of playing. It’s been good, so far.”
That’s another understatement.
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar. Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
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