With all due respect to the architect of six Stanley Cup champions, it’s doubtful that many young hockey players grow up dreaming of winning the Frank J. Selke Trophy.
The hardware, named in honor of the general manager of the 1950s-era Montreal Canadiens, is annually given to the NHL’s top defensive forward. In an era in which offensive statistics are celebrated, the role of a defensive forward is not a sexy one.
Unless, of course, you’re a head coach, in which they are revered for their work ethic and effectiveness. When a player can both score and play defense, he is considered world-class, and the Kings’ Anze Kopitar
is rapidly entering that territory.
``Having a guy who is your best player, who can play that well on the defensive side of the puck, it only makes your team better,’’ said linemate Dustin Penner
, who matched up against Kopitar for six seasons before he was traded to the Kings last month.
Kopitar entered this week’s games tied for seventh in the NHL in points, with 72. That alone stamps Kopitar as an elite center, but it’s the improvement Kopitar has made in his defensive game over the past three seasons that truly sets him apart.
``You want to be remembered as a decent two-way player,’’ Kopitar said.
|Kopitar lays a big hit on Daniel Sedin earlier this season. Only Sedin is ahead of Kopitar in plus-minus rankings among NHL forwards this season. |
Decent? At the start of the week, Kopitar had a plus-24 rating, second among all NHL forwards and behind only Vancouver’s Daniel Sedin, who was plus-26.
Kopitar’s defensive prowess has reached the point that Terry Murray rarely has to fret about matching up lines. For a couple years, the line centered by Michal Handzus was considered the Kings’ defensive ``shutdown’’ line, the one that Murray would try, in an ideal situation, to match up against the opponents’ top forwards.
That’s not always easy to do though, particularly on the road when the home-team coach is not able to make the final line change before a faceoff. Now, Murray almost dares the opposition. Want to match up your top unit against Kopitar? Go for it.
Murray now focuses more on matching up his defensemen against the opponents’ top scoring threats, confident not only in Kopitar’s ability to handle himself in the defensive end but in his ability to make those opposing forwards work on defense as well.
``Kopi, he’s a player that responds to a challenge against premier players in the game,’’ Murray said. ``I think, from where he has come two years ago, in his checking game, he’s right there with any of the top players in the game in that kind of a responsibility.’’
That’s particularly important in the Pacific Division. Anaheim features Ryan Getzlaf and San Jose features Joe Thornton, two heavy-minute horses who can make life miserable for opponents. And while Getzlaf and Thornton haven’t been matched up against Koptiar exclusively this season, they’ve seen their fair share of him.
|Anze Kopitar has held the Sharks' star center Joe Thornton to zero points in four games this season. |
Getzlaf has zero goals and one assist in three games against the Kings this season. Thornton has zero points in four games against the Kings.
Then consider Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, typically two of the NHL’s most-dangerous forwards. In the four-game series between the Kings and Red Wings this season, Kopitar had four goals and three assists. Datsyuk had one goal and one assist, while Zetterberg had zero goals and two assists.
``(Kopitar) uses his stick extremely well, and that’s key against players who have the puck on their stick a lot, like Datsyuk and Zetterberg,’’ Murray said. ``You have to have stick-on-puck. They cycle from below the goal line, or attack the seem at the top of the circle, and in today’s game you can’t put a hand on a player.
``So stick-on-puck and moving your feet, to take away shots and take away passing options, is absolutely critical to have. That’s where Kopi makes those good reads.’’
To be certain, it’s been a learned skill. Throughout his five-year NHL career, Kopitar has averaged more than 20 minutes of ice time per game, but he’s a different player now.
The younger Kopitar might often be less effective at the end of shifts and the end of games. An improved focus on offseason conditioning, over the past two summers, has helped Kopitar immensely, as has his buy-in to Murray’s defense-first philosophy.
Not only is Kopitar no longer considered a liability on defense, he’s part of the reliable core. When the Kings are trying to hold a one-goal lead late in the third period, Kopitar is never off the ice for long. That’s the biggest compliment Murray can pay him.
|Anze Kopitar steals the puck from the Red Wings' Henrik Zetterberg. Kopitar's defensive prowess limited Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk to just four points in four games this year. |
``I don’t think that happened very often (in previous seasons) when we were up one in the last few minutes,’’ Kopitar said. ``Now, I think Terry is comfortable putting me out there, and I’m definitely comfortable to go out there and shut it down.
``That comes with just the growth and the responsibility that you put on yourself. You’ve got to learn that. That’s what you learn as your career goes along.’’
So what about that Selke Trophy? Given that Kopitar is still establishing himself as a top defensive center, it might be difficult for him to get league-wide attention this season, but Kopitar certainly has the respect of teammates and opponents.
``He prides himself on the defensive part of the game, but he's an offensive guy and he enjoys scoring,’’ Penner said. ``I don't think a lot of people see that, and that's fine, because he brings that part of the game every night. He's killing penalties, he's playing 22 minutes a night and he's playing center, which is tougher to play than wing, as far as skating.
``So he's playing a lot of hard minutes, getting up and down the ice, seeing power play, seeing PK [penalty kill] and he's a leader for this group. He's been a leader here for a while. The defensive part of his game only makes the team better. ‘’