Anze Kopitar Breaks Into NHL Elite With Hot Start For Kings

By Randy Holt

When Anze Kopitar went down with an ankle injury that ended his season last spring, most figured the Kings’ season to be over. While Los Angeles performed admirably in their first round matchup against the San Jose Sharks, it’s pretty clear that Kopitar was missed in the lineup.

With a revamped lineup that added the likes of Mike Richards and Simon Gagne this summer, expectations are sky high in the City of Angels. And Kopitar is at the center of them.

Despite seasons of 81 points in 2009-10 and 73 points before he went down last year, Kopitar isn’t a guy that is regularly mentioned along with the top forwards in the NHL. With his early production this year, and strong two-way play, it’s probably time that he is.

Since breaking into the league in the 2006-07 season, Kopitar has always been a guy that can produce points. Even though he wasn’t even 20 when his career with the Kings began, he’s never put up a season of less than 60 points.

But with those high point totals early on in his career came a less-than-stellar plus/minus. In his rookie year, that sat at a minus-12. In the following two campaigns, it declined, with a putrid minus-17 in 2007-2008. Of course, some of that is due to the lack of talent around him as the Kings rebuilt, but it also speaks to how far Kopitar has come in rounding out his game on both ends of the ice.

The addition of Mike Richards by general manager Dean Lombardi over the summer helped to take some of the pressure off of Kopitar. Yet, it looks like he’s on his way to having an even better season than he did in ’09-’10. That year, Kopitar posted a career-high 81 points and was a plus-6 on the season.

To this point in the season, Kopitar is one of just two players to collect a point in each of his team’s games. He’s second in the league in total points, trailing only Toronto’s Phil Kessel, who has 12. Through six games, Kopitar has 10 points, including six goals and four assists.

But what slaps the “elite” label on Kopitar, when he didn’t have it before are the aspects of his game that go beyond the stat sheet. His playmaking skills are among the best in the National Hockey League. Just ask Simon Gagne. His plus/minus, after being at plus-25 last year, is already at a plus-6.

On the defensive side, Kopitar has won over 50 percent of his faceoffs to start the season. That big 6’3″ frame allows him to get physical if he has to, and he has become a guy that takes the ice in all situations for Los Angeles. Whether it’s on the power play or penalty kill, Kopi is tops on the squad among forwards go for minutes on special teams. He has become the total package for LA.

Through six games, the Kings have only dropped one game in regulation, collecting at least a point in the other five. A big reason for that is the overall game of Kopitar. While he may not compete for a Selke Trophy this year, the fact that he has realized that defensive part of his game has elevated it, and has the Kings and their fans thinking big for the 2011-2012 season.

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