Much has been made of the summer demands put on Anze Kopitar
by Kings general manager Dean Lombardi, who pushed Kopitar to get in better shape and to, in Lombardi's words, be physically ready to battle against some of the league's bigger centers.
Lombardi went deeper, though, and challenged Kopitar on a more personal level. Did Kopitar have what it took to be a winner? Did he even want to be a winner in the NHL?
"Give me some Jeter," Lombardi would tell Kopitar, a reference to New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter, known for his work ethic and leadership. Lombardi once sat down Kopitar and showed him a biography of legendary Philadelphia captain Bobby Clarke.
"Show me a winner," Lombardi often told Kopitar, both directly and indirectly.
How did Kopitar respond?
The answer is in Kopitar's eyes, which are bright and happy these days, in his wide smile and in his excited voice, all befitting a 22-year-old who is sitting atop the NHL world.
Which is, somewhat shockingly, exactly who Kopitar is today. Entering Tuesday, Kopitar led the NHL in goals (10) and points (21), clearly the best 12-game start of his four-year career and the most dominating start of any Kings player in recent memory.
That strong start is surprising only in the sense of how much has changed in just a few months. At the end of last season, Kopitar had dull eyes and a soft voice, beaten down by a rough season in which his production dropped and the Kings missed the playoffs again.
Once the season ended, though, Kopitar changed. For the first time, he spent significant time in Southern California during the summer and participated in workouts, at the Kings' training facility, arranged by fellow alternate captain Matt Greene
"I think that's where Kopi proved that he's ready to take a step, and went out and did something about it," Lombardi said. "We always knew he had potential, and now he's starting to reach his potential. He had always showed the potential to be a great player. Now show me a winner.
"You're starting to see some signs like that, that I find most encouraging. I see signs that he not only has the potential to be a great player, but that he has the potential to be a winner. He just has to keep pushing in that direction."
So far, so good this season. Kopitar's strength has visibly improved and, boosted by the arrival of veteran winger Ryan Smyth, so has his confidence. That combination has given the Kings a true top-line threat for the first time since Ziggy Palffy skated in L.A.
It has also put the Kings atop the Pacific Division standings.
"It’s a special feeling that you almost can’t describe," Kopitar said. "You know, when you go on the ice, that things are going to happen, instead of just hoping that things are going to happen.
"We’re making plays, and that’s part of the growth that Dean is always talking about and Terry (Murray) is always talking about, when you know you’re going to come out and outplay the guy across from you. That’s a huge part of growing, a huge part of being a playoff team and right now, we’re showing it and playing with a lot of confidence."
Kopitar's play has been a large part of that, and has also gone a long way toward easing Lombardi's mind. Lombardi made an enormous investment last October when he signed Kopitar to a seven-year, $47.6-million extension.
He did so largely on Kopitar's potential. Kopitar had an impressive rookie season in 2006-07, with 20 goals and 41 assists. He pushed those numbers up to 32 goals and 45 assists the next season, but then regressed to 27 goals and 39 assists.
Coach Terry Murray did an honorable job in shielding Kopitar, often saying that Kopitar's offensive numbers had dipped because Kopitar was taking on more defensive responsibilities. That was true, but it didn't tell the whole story. Kopitar wasn't in good enough shape to handle the big minutes and big responsibilities at both ends of the ice.
Lombardi let him know, in no uncertain terms, that he needed to be in better shape.
Kopitar said Lombardi's comments "didn't hurt, but it's definitely not a good thing to hear from your GM, that you're not in good enough shape to play in this league, or for the minutes that I play. I didn't have to prove anything, but I wanted to do it for myself."Continue to part II