The last five years have seen a few firsts in the history of the Los Angeles Kings, the most notable being the team’s first ever Stanley Cup in 2012. This year has seen another first (albeit not as monumental), as the Kings have a finalist for the Frank J. Selke Trophy for best defensive forward for the first time.
Center Anze Kopitar has seen his two-way play rewarded by the voters in being nominated for the prestigious award. The most notable thing about this year’s finalists (Kopitar, Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins, and Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks) is that each one of them has won a Stanley Cup in the past four seasons (Toews has won two, beating Kopitar and Bergeron along the way).
It sounds cliché, but the mantra of “offense sells tickets, defense wins championships” reflects the direct correlation between the finalists and the success of their respective teams. Kopitar is no exception, as he has been the “straw that stirs the drink” for the Kings all season and throughout his tenure in Los Angeles. The best example of this is how he has carried the team in all facets of the game, particularly with the season long struggles of “catalysts” Dustin Brown and Mike Richards.
Kopitar’s development has been an amazing thing to watch, as he came over to North America as a raw teenager with much to prove. His size, coupled with his immense skill, made him a joy to watch on a team that was otherwise atrocious (I apologize to the Craig Conroy and Dan Cloutier fans out there) in his first years as a King. As Kopitar and the young talent around him developed, the team’s winning percentage improved and they went from laughing stock of the league, to winning the Stanley Cup in 2012. While his offensive skill was always apparent, this year it was Kopitar’s defensive play that his him in the spotlight. In addition to pacing the team in points with 70, Kopitar led the team in +/- with a +34 (Good for fourth in the NHL) really showcasing how well he has improved his all-around game at 5-on-5. Kopitar also was trusted to take many key faceoffs and won more than 53 percent of them, helping the Kings’ become one of the best puck-possession teams in the NHL.
Kopitar’s shorthanded play has also been stellar this season, as he was an anchor of the Kings’ 11th ranked penalty kill, using his size and reach to disrupt passing and shooting lanes as well as anyone in the league. Kopitar’s mix of offensive and defensive awareness was most apparent in that he led all of the the league’s top 30 scorers in terms of total shorthanded time on ice (to be fair, the thought of Alexander Ovechkin killing a penalty is downright scary). As a result of his amazing on-ice vision and long reach, Kopitar is adept at creating turnovers and keeping the opposing team honest in how they pass and shoot the puck on the man advantage. Few players are as skilled with the puck on their stick, and giving the puck up to No. 11 often leads to a quality scoring chance against, regardless of on-ice manpower.
While I believe Bergeron will and should win the award, there is plenty to celebrate for Kopitar and the Kings’ staff that drafted and developed the 26 year old. While this may not be the year he gets the materialistic reward for his stellar play on the defensive side of the puck, the praise and he accolades he has received are well deserved. If the Kings want to keep icing a competitive team like they have in recent years, Kopitar’s elite two-way game will have be at the forefront. Given his track record, I see no reason to think it would be any other way.