Much was made of Anze Kopitar
four seasons ago when he began his professional career. The interest was as much for being the first Slovenian to play in the NHL as it was for his talent.
His journey from a little town nestled near the northwest border of Austria to first-round pick by the Los Angeles Kings in 2005 is a story of courage and determination.
"I can say it was a pretty smooth ride actually," Kopitar told NHL.com. "I went from Slovenia to Sweden and then straight to the NHL. There aren't a lot of guys who get an opportunity like that; usually you must go through the minor-league system. So, for me, it was a dream."
It's a tale that never grows old although, nowadays, you kind of get the feeling Kopitar is more interested in detailing how the Kings will return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in seven seasons.
"Everybody's saying that this is our breakthrough year and I think my goal is to just help make the team get better," Kopitar said. "I just want to make everybody around me better and try to be one of the leaders on the team. I obviously want to help bring the team to the playoffs -- that's a goal of ours this year and hopefully we can make it. It's a long season but we've started off pretty good."
Indeed -- the Kings are currently atop the Pacific Division with 16 points through 12 games this season. Kopitar leads the League with 10 goals and 21 points and is second with 11 assists. Last season, it took him 25 games to get 19 points and 28 games to reach 8 goals.
The 22-year-old center entered 2009-10 having scored 79 goals and 204 points in 236 career games. Following a strong 20-goal rookie campaign, he notched 32 in his second year before connecting for 27 his junior season to firmly establish himself as one of the NHL's emerging stars.
He admits that while his role hasn't changed, he's paying more attention to detail this year and it's paying off.
"Details like skating back into our zone and stopping instead of swinging and not facing the puck all the time -- it does make a big difference," Kopitar said. "There are some plays that just got away from me a little bit but coming back and stopping makes it tougher on your opponent; you have everything in front of you and you can see where the puck is and where the guys are. If I want to be regarded as a solid defensive-forward, these are the types of things I must do."
It also doesn't hurt to be playing alongside two savvy linemates in veterans Ryan Smyth and Justin Williams
"We were put together right at the start of training camp and it's worked out well," Kopitar said. "We all know the type of player Ryan is -- he's won some big games and he's had some good runs with the Oilers. He's a player who brings a lot to our locker room with his dedication and professionalism. He always has a smile on his face and I think that makes everyone more relaxed and sometimes we need that. Justin won the Stanley Cup (with Carolina) so he knows what it takes so I'm fortunate to play with those guys."
Smyth, acquired by the Kings from the Colorado Avalanche in the offseason for defensemen Kyle Quincey and Tom Preissing and a 2010 fifth-round pick, feels fortunate to be playing alongside one of the game's gifted performers.
"I have been fortunate over the years to play with guys that have great skill," Smyth told NHL.com. "I played with Dougie Weight and Billy Guerin (in Edmonton) and that was a pretty good line at the time. Then I played with Shawn Horcoff in the Stanley Cup run along with Ales Hemsky. That was fun, too. I played with Paul Stastny and Milan Hejduk in Denver and now here with Kopy and Justin Williams
. I always thought Kopy was an excellent hockey player."
Kopitar takes great pride in the fact he is an assistant captain and looked upon as a leader on the team.
"To be one the leaders on the hockey club that we have right now means a lot to me," he said. "Being a young club and having the chance to wear the 'A' is an honor. In the past, I've been on teams with leadership and you just want to bring that to the table each and every day. I think setting the tone in practice by practicing hard and then showing up for every game and never taking a shift off is important."
That overall commitment began when the Kings hired Terry Murray as their coach in the summer of 2008.
"When Coach Murray came in last year he addressed that to me and I was willing to take that challenge," Kopitar said. "If you want to be a good leader on the team and a good player in this League, you have to be a two-way player. I thought I took a step in the right direction last year with my defensive game and now I just want to build on it and put numbers on too."
Kopitar has never considered himself a big talker in the locker room; instead, he prefers to lead by example.
"I'll try and spark up some guys sometimes; maybe I'll say some things that don't even make sense to get the guys fired up," Kopitar said. "Sometimes if I feel like it, I'll talk but I don't know if I'm that big of a talker. (Defenseman) Matt Greene
is a big talker in the locker room, so it's a good mix."
KOPI PROVED HIS WORTH SINCE DAY 1It didn't take long for Anze Kopitar to prove his draft-day value. In fact, his coming out celebration was in his first NHL game against the Ducks at the Honda Center in Anaheim Oct. 6, 2006.
"My first game was both emotional and nerve-racking, but when I put the Kings jersey on, I just said to myself, 'This is it, you just have to go out there and show them what you can do,' " Kopitar said.
Kopitar, just 19 at the time, would score twice in a span of 2:12 in the first period of a 4-3 loss. It was the first goal of his career at the 9:14 mark, however, that will forever be recounted by those who witnessed it.
"It was surreal, actually," he said. "I didn't really think about it as it was a natural reaction. We were in our own end and Dustin Brown chipped it off the boards, allowing me to skate into it. The next thing I remember I was holding off (Chris) Pronger on my back and trying to get around (goalie) J.S. Giguere and lift the puck into the net. It all happened so quick and I had no idea who was trying to slow me down."
He would finish his first season third in rookie points (65) behind Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin (85) and Colorado's Paul Stastny (78). In 2007-08, when he represented the Western Conference at the NHL All-Star Game, Kopitar posted 32 goals and led the Kings with 77 points, 52 takeaways and 566 face-offs won while topping all forwards on the team in ice time per game (20:41).
"I didn't feel a lot of pressure in my first year," Kopitar said. "Before the season, I thought I was going to play in the minors. Getting off to that good start and having my family there really helped my confidence."Contact Mike Morreale at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer