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Kopitar Embraces Second All-Star Game Experience

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings
By all accounts, Anze Kopitar could be satisfied with himself. He has already achieved more than a child born in the small European country of Slovenia could have dreamed.

Kopitar is an NHL player. He’s one of the top scorers in the league. He’s an assistant captain. He’s making $7 million a year and enjoying life in sunny Southern California.

Yet, there’s more. Simply ``making it’’ isn’t enough for Kopitar, and it’s not enough for those who coach and manage him. Everyone involved knows that Kopitar’s top level has not yet been reached, that he’s still young and a work in progress.

To that end, this season has been another step forward. While the Kings, overall, have wobbled at times and will need to be much better in the second half of the season, Kopitar has been a consistent scorer and, for the second time, is an NHL All-Star.

When most of the league’s players are resting this weekend, Kopitar will be representing the Kings in the All-Star Game in Raleigh, N.C. It’s another step forward in what the Kings hope will end up being a superstar career for Kopitar.

``He’s the kind of player that we, as a franchise, identify with,’’ Kings coach Terry Murray said. ``We’re hitching our wagons, as they say, to him, and he’s not shy to shoulder the responsibility and take on the workload every day in practice, every day in the game. I’m real happy for him. It’s recognition well earned.’’

This will be Kopitar’s second All-Star experience. He earned the honor in 2008, in his second NHL season, when he was still little more than a curiosity league-wide. Kopitar was starting to be revered in L.A. but, for the most part, remained a hidden talent.

Anze Kopitar skated for the Western Conference in his first All-Star Game in '08 as a second-year pro.
Now, Kopitar has spent most of this season in the top 20 of NHL scoring and his increasingly gaining league-wide recognition. This year’s All-Star teams will be selected by a team captain ``draft,’’ so it’s not yet known where Kopitar will end up.

Kopitar did get some solid praise a few days ago. During an interview on SiriusXM radio, Phoenix’s Shane Doan was asked which of the All-Stars he would be high if he was drafting, a player whom Doan might value more than others would expect.

``I think Kopitar is an incredible player,’’ Doan said. ``I think he would be an guy that would go high. He’s so talented. I like Jonathan Toews, Danny Briere, those guys. Obviously, everybody is going to be picking them high as well, but I think Anze Kopitar, he’s as good as there is (among) young guys in the league. If his team was doing a little bit better, I think he would be getting the attention that he deserves.’’

Kopitar led the Kings in scoring last season by a wide margin, with 81 points in 82 games, and now, at age 24, is leading them again with 49 points in 49 games. The NHL recognized Kopitar when, on Jan. 11, it named him as one of 22 All-Star forwards.

``It's a good accomplishment, of course,’’ Kopitar said this week. ``Obviously you want to be recognized as a guy that is one of the leaders on the team and one of the (top) guys in the league, too. Being selected to the All-Star Game is a nice compliment, a good step, toward that.’’

Kopitar’s development has been full of steps in the right direction.

Kopitar was a little-known quantity when the Kings made him the No. 11 overall pick in the 2005 draft. The Kings wanted him to stick around longer in training camp that year, but Kopitar held firm to his commitment to play professionally in Sweden.

The next year, however, Kopitar was off and running. In his second period of his first NHL game, Kopitar took the puck into the Anaheim zone, carried it around Norris Trophy-winner Chris Pronger and scored one of his two goals in the game.

Kopitar has had eye-popping stretches of scoring success, and other times when his production dips, but his work ethic has remained unquestioned. Little noticed by some was the fact that, after three NHL seasons, Kopitar essentially transformed himself into a two-play player, a center capable of averaging a point per game and also capable of matching up against the opponents’ top lines on a nightly basis.

Murray trusts Kopitar in all situations, even strength and special teams.

``His size, his strength, his power and his attitude about playing in the heavy going — he has no issue with the physical play, he welcomes it — and with the power he has, most of the time he’s able to make something good happen,’’ Murray said.

The All-Star nod is another positive step in Kopitar’s young, increasingly impressive career. With any luck, he will get to enjoy it a bit. The day the All-Star teams were announced, the mood was not celebratory for Kopitar and the Kings, who had just lost for the sixth time in their previous seven games.

The Kings’ spirits have been lifted a bit by consecutive victories over Phoenix and Boston, but Kopitar won’t be in the All-Star mindset until after the Kings finish Wednesday’s home game against San Jose.

``Right now, it's not the time to think about it,’’ Kopitar said. ``I'm sure, a couple days before, when I fly there and everything, that's when it's really going to hit me. It's going to be exciting. I'm definitely going to take in more of it than I did my first one.

``My first one, I was so excited, so thrilled to meet everybody there. Just being there was a great honor, to represent the Kings. Now, it's going to be the same way. it's 40 of the best players in the world, and just to be a part of that, it's great. It's a big honor, and I'm sure I'm going to soak it up a little more than last time.’’

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