Anze Kopitar is one of the biggest surprises in NHL this season.
The Los Angeles Kings center from the former Yugoslavia is the top scorer in the NHL after a quarter of the season. As of Monday, his Kings are second in the Pacific division, fourth in the Western Conference, and are light years ahead of last season when they finished second to last in the conference.
While it’s quite common to hear of an NHLer from Europe, hockey players don’t often come from Jesenice, Slovenia. Kopitar is the first-ever NHLer from that country.
Still, he says hockey wasn’t foreign when he was growing up.
“Jesenice is very small and is known for its steel factories . . . but it’s a great hockey town,” Kopitar said in a recent NHL.com interview.
“Dad made an ice surface back home which was pretty special and I started skating there before playing youth hockey for the town’s club team.”
Eventually Kopitar’s hockey journey would take him to Sweden and in 2004–05 he finished with 28 goals and 21 assists for 49 points in 30 games for the Sodertalje junior team.
Still, some NHL scouts had their doubts about Kopitar leading up to the 2005 entry draft.
Slovenia isn’t a hockey hotbed and in a draft where Sidney Crosby was the most coveted player, Anze waited 10 picks before the Kings selected him 11th overall.
The Kings made the right choice, however, and they rewarded Kopitar with a seven-year contract extension worth $47.6 million last season.
Kopitar is one of that first round’s most productive players. That 2005 class includes the likes of Habs netminder Carey Price, Ducks winger Bobby Ryan, and Sharks RW Devon Setoguchi.
In Kopitar’s rookie campaign he had 20 goals, 41 assists for 61 points in 72 games. He had no sophomore slump, recording 77 points with 32 goals and 45 assists over the span of a full season in 2007–08, which are all career highs so far.
He dipped a little last season, but still put up a solid 27 goals and 39 helpers for 66 points.
At the end of last season, the Kings told the Slovenian to work on his fitness level. Kopitar supplemented his off-season conditioning with sprints of 100–400 meters on a track.
The 6’3”, 220 lbs center isn’t a particularly physical player despite his size, but the extra work on the track enabled his conditioning to improve as witnessed by his play this season.
Kopitar is currently on pace for 52 goals, 67 assists for 119 points this season, which absolutely blows away anything he has ever accomplished in the past. If he keeps up this pace, his point total would be the most scored since the 2006–07 season when Sidney Crosby scored 120 points.
He has jelled on a line with Ryan Smyth, who was acquired in an offseason trade.
“[Ryan’s] great around the net. He’s making plays coming through the neutral zone and that’s beneficial for my game too because I like to get the puck in stride and get it with speed so I can take it wide or carry it into the zone and make plays after that,” Kopitar said in an NHL On The Fly interview.
“He’s been passing the puck really well and it seems we’ve been clicking right from the start of training camp,” he said.
People shouldn’t be surprised by his fast start because the Kings No. 11 has always displayed a penchant for scoring.
What is surprising is Kopitar’s commitment in his own end of the rink.
While goals and assists haven’t been a problem for him, being on the ice when the opposition scores has been problematic as his career +/- rating is a lousy -38.
However, he says that he is becoming more accustomed to head coach Terry Murray’s system and as of Monday has a rating of +6.
Murray joined the Kings last season and Kopitar says the team has focused on keeping the puck out of the net during the coach’s tenure.
“We all made a big improvement last year in the defensive part because before that we were giving up a lot of goals and we cut down a lot from previous years,” Kopitar said on NHL Live.
Anze Kopitar recorded his first hat trick on Oct. 22 against the Dallas Stars and he would also like to cap his potential career year with another first—a trip to the postseason.
“Three years of no playoff hockey is enough,” he said.