Kopitar, who's now in his fourth season with the Los Angeles Kings, is the only Slovenian currently playing in the NHL. Fact is, he not only made it, but is already considered the future of an organization that has failed to qualify for the playoffs the last six seasons.
The 22-year-old center had scored 79 goals and 204 points in 236 career games entering the 2009-10 season -- and, by his own admission, is prepared to take on an even greater role. Kopitar feels the future is now, and he's willing to do anything within his skate blades to legitimize the Kings as contenders in the Western Conference -- they're off to a good start, with a 4-1-0 record going into Wednesday night's game against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
Following a strong 20-goal rookie campaign, Kopitar followed up with 32- and 27-goal seasons to establish himself as one of the NHL's emerging stars.
"I obviously want to get as many points as possible but, the thing is, we have a young group and we've just done rebuilding and everybody's saying that this is our breakthrough year and I think my goal is to just help make the team get better," Kopitar told NHL.com. "I want to make everybody around me better and try to be one of the leaders on the team."
Leadership is a quality that will surely come naturally to Kopitar. He's been competing with older players since the age of 6, when, while participating in a tournament in Villach, Austria, he racked up 28 goals despite being two years younger than every other player on the ice. Being the youngest player is a scenario Kopitar would play out over the next 13-plus seasons of his career in his native Slovenia, and Sweden, before finally arriving in the NHL. He's learned what it takes to become a presence both on and off the ice by carefully watching and emulating those leaders before him.
Still, the big question remains. Can Kopitar, no longer considered the best-kept secret in L.A., continue his rapid accent up the NHL ladder in his fourth season? After putting up 66 points for a team that finished 26th in the League in 2008-09, it certainly wouldn't come as a shock. Centering the team's top line with offseason acquisition Ryan Smyth and Justin Williams has benefitted Kopitar, who had 4 goals and 10 points through five games.
"They worked hard to figure out where each other would be and how to play with each other," coach Terry Murray said after Monday's 2-1 win over the Islanders, in which Kopitar scored the game's first goal. "It’s nice to see some results."
Odds are Kopitar will sustain that confidence that has Kings' fans on the edge of their seats. In the meantime, here's a look back at last year's fourth-year players who led the NHL in scoring and who Kopitar hopes to follow with another strong season.
1-Alex Ovechkin, Washington -- Ovie just gets better with age, and despite the fact he missed three games to attend to his ailing grandfather in Russia in the early part of 2008-09, he still managed 110 points and a League-leading 56 goals. He finished second in the League with Mike Cammalleri with 19 power-play goals.
2-Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh -- Following an injury-plagued 2007-08 season that limited him to 24 goals and 72 points, the youngest team captain in NHL history made up for lost time with 33 goals and 103 points. He led the League with 33 power-play assists -- then became the youngest captain of a Stanley Cup winner.
3-Zach Parise, New Jersey -- Parise's breakout season came in his fourth year in the League as he amassed 45 goals and 94 points, averaging 1.15 points-per-game in 2008-09.
4-Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim -- The 24-year-old center has seen an increase in point production over each of his four seasons. He concluded 2008-09 with career highs in assists (66) and points (91).
5-Jeff Carter, Philadelphia -- The fourth season happened to be the charm for the big pivot of the Flyers, who notched career highs with 46 goals, 38 assists and 84 points.
6-Mike Richards, Philadelphia -- The "other" center in Philadelphia also had a career year, including personal highs of 30 goals, 50 assists and 80 points in 79 games. The Philadelphia captain also led the League with 7 shorthanded goals.
7-Mike Green, Washington -- Green may have had the most dramatic four-season turnaround you'll ever see. As a rookie in 2005-06, the 6-foot-2, 201-pound defenseman scored just 3 points in 22 games. Last season, he was the highest-scoring defenseman in the League and ranked 30th overall with 73 points, including 31 goals.
8-Corey Perry, Anaheim -- The 24-year-old right wing led Anaheim with 32 goals, 8 game-winning goals and 283 shots while ranking second on the Ducks in scoring (72 points) and putting up a plus-10 rating.
9-Mikko Koivu, Minnesota -- The younger brother of Anaheim Ducks forward Saku Koivu led the Wild with 67 points, 47 assists, 16 multi-point games and 3 shorthanded goals. Only three players in team history have notched more points in a season than Koivu did in 2008-09.
10-Jason Pominville -- Pominville, who hasn't missed a game in three seasons, scored 20 goals and had 66 points, along with a team-high 18 multi-point games for the Buffalo Sabres while taking a career-high 239 shots in 2008-09.
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com