One recurring subject? Anze Kopitar, 2013 Selke Trophy candidate and a whole lot more…
“I think it started last year when I was in Columbus and talking to Mike,” Carter said. “He kept telling me ‘This guy is unbelievable. He could be leading the league in scoring. He’s one of the top players.’ He was going on and on.
“But until you actually get out here and you see him every day and play with him…” Carter continued, his voice trailing off slightly. “He’s pretty special.”
While speaking with players who have appeared in the Western Conference for the majority of their careers, the esteem for Anze Kopitar’s balance, puck control and 200-foot effectiveness appears to be accepted practically as fact.
But for those who have made the move from the Eastern Conference – Carter and Richards are among them – Kopitar’s complete package can be a surprise delivery.
“It’s unbelievable, actually, how you don’t hear anything about him,” Richards said.
One headline from last season’s Stanley Cup run indicated that Kopitar had been emerging “from obscurity.” (hyperlink: http://www.tsn.ca/nhl/teams/story/?id=397410&hubname=nhl-kings)
On the contrary, his Game 1 overtime game-winner against Martin Brodeur and five points in the final series were merely extensions of his six-season body of work in the NHL, the final five years of which he led the Kings in scoring with an average of 74.6 points. He’ll turn 26 on August 24.
“Before I came here, I thought he was like 29, 30, but he’s only 25 years old, which is unbelievable,” said Keaton Ellerby, who had spent three seasons in a Florida Panthers jersey before joining Los Angeles in February. “He’s just so good for how young he is.”
Those familiar with the 6-foot-3, 225-pound center’s game understand that the points he posts are only a portion of a complete package that have had players and commentators occasionally brandishing Kopitar’s name when the subject of the Selke Trophy is raised.
His teammates agree:
Said Carter when asked whether Kopitar deserves heavy Selke consideration:
“I think he should be, for sure. He should be in the talks. He's just so big. He's so strong, and he's so gifted offensively, but he never cheats. He's always on the right side of the puck. I think if you ask any of the defensemen, he's always low. He's always back to them when they're stepping up. He just seems to be in the right position all the time.”
Rob Scuderi answered the same question in a very similar manner: “I think so. Since coming to the west, I’m not sure if I buy into the east coast bias towards awards. But I certainly don’t think he gets enough credit for the things he does. If he were to cheat a little more, he could probably be a 90, 95-point guy, even in the west, which is saying something because we don’t score a lot of goals in the conference. But he doesn’t. He always stays back. He talks a lot. He’s a real asset to have as a defensive player. You always know that when he’s on the ice, that he’s going to be in the right spot, he’s going to be doing the right thing, and he’s reliable.”
It’s also his ability to communicate with his teammates on the ice, his defense of the puck and ability to excel in board battles that have come to be the M.O. of one of the Western Conference’s most difficult forwards to play against.
But much greater attention is paid to certain pockets of the Eastern Conference as opposed to “out west,” a designation colloquially applied by many players and commentators to the far flung and expansive Western Conference. As such, many nuances of his game go under-recognized.
“You always knew that he was out here, but you never really heard too much about him,” Carter said.
One player emerging as a true believer is Richards, who played briefly as Kopitar’s left wing early in the 2011-12 season. Calling to attention the center’s elusive speed – Richards referred to his long, powerful strides being able to catch defenders off-guard – the second-year King placed his teammate in quality company.
“I’ve played against Sid for a long time, and Malkin, and now I’m getting to play against Datsyuk a bit. I’d even throw Kopi into that top-four range,” Richards said.
“You watch people just try to defend him, and there’s literally nothing you can do when he just sticks his butt out and just protects the puck. There’s no way you can take it off him because he’s too strong and too smart with the puck. ‘Top-four’ in the league is something I’ve said before, and I really do believe that.”
Why is it that a player held in such esteem draws little attention of hockey fans from points east?
“I think it’s probably true being out in the west here with the late games,” Carter said. “L.A’s growing into a bigger hockey market, but to be honest, when Kopi came here it probably wasn’t the biggest market, so they [didn’t] get a lot of coverage. He kind of flies under the radar.”
Kopitar’s goal scoring has flown under the radar recently; though he leads the Kings with 36 points, his only goal in the last 12 games came by virtue of a nifty stickhandling play and quick release that beat Corey Crawford up high in a 5-4 win at Chicago on March 25. He increased his point streak to four games with his team-high 26th assist in a 5-1 loss to Dallas on Tuesday.
Despite the loss, it’s back to business as usual for Kopitar as the Kings look to inch closer towards their fourth consecutive playoff appearance and first title defense in franchise history.
“You see how hard he works every day, and just how…skilled he is,” Ellerby said. “He’s definitely an elite player.”