Ever since talented Anze Kopitar arrived on the scene, it was only a matter of time before the Los Angeles Kings would climb out of the rut they have been stuck in this decade.
The Kings haven’t made a post-season appearance since 2002, but their outlook immediately brightened the day they took a chance and selected the skilled Slovenian at the 2005 NHL entry draft.
Now the team enters an important game in Vancouver against the Canucks on Monday evening tied for top spot in the Western Conference and enjoying an 8-1-1 run in their past 10 games.
"This is actually a carry-over from last year," Kopitar said from Vancouver. "You could see signs that we were becoming a pretty good team last year. The difference was we would play good for a while and then not so good for a while.
"This year we have been consistently good right from the start."
The additions of veterans Ryan Smyth, Justin Williams and defenceman Rob Scuderi have aided the Kings cause as has the stingy goaltending of Jonathan Quick, a candidate for the United States Olympic team. But Williams has missed time with an injury, so has Smyth and Scuderi, and now effective power forward Wayne Simmonds is out with a knee ailment.
The one constant has been the 22-year-old Kopitar. In his fourth NHL season, he is a bona fide star. He is fifth in league scoring with 16 goals and 37 points, but more importantly his longest stretch without a point is only four games.
Overcoming the injury bug
"I don’t think you can say it’s been one player for us," said Kopitar, who surprisingly doesn’t have a game-winning goal in 34 matches this season. "Everybody is chipping in. Even with the injuries we’ve had we’ve been fortunate that we haven’t missed their production. Somebody else has stepped up."
The Kings have surrendered 2.88 goals a game (21st in the league), but they have scored a sixth best 2.97 goals per game. They also have been particularly good in one-goal games with an 11-1-3 record. Only the Pittsburgh Penguins have more one-goal victories with 12.
There were safer prospects before Kopitar was drafted 11th overall four years ago. Just glance down the Kings bench and you see one in defenceman Jack Johnson, who was snapped up by the Carolina Hurricanes third overall, or Edmonton Oilers forward Gilbert Brule, who was taken in the sixth slot by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Kopitar burst onto the scene as a 17-year-old at the 2005 world championship in Austria. With all eyes on the tournament because of the NHL lockout, he dazzled. But the jury was out as to whether he should be mentioned at Crosby’s level. So he slipped to the Kings at 11th a few months later in the draft that saw Crosby selected first.
From the 2005 draft, only Crosby and San Jose Sharks blue-liner Marc-Edouard Vlasic have played more games (290 and 245, respectively) than Kopitar. He will play in his 237th career NHL game when he suits up against the Canucks.
"This has happened so quickly for me," said Kopitar, the first Slovenian to crack an NHL lineup. "It definitely has been different. I’m proud of the things I’ve done so far."
Kopitar’s father coached him growing up in Slovenia. But before Kopitar joined the Kings, he played a couple of years in Sweden to expedite his development.
In his first season with the Kings, Kopitar exhibited the kind of flash he showed at the 2005 world championship, but he admitted to being homesick. So his parents and younger brother moved in with him in Manhattan Beach, Calif., for his second season and have been with him in Southern California since.
"It’s been great having them here," said Kopitar, whose 17-year-old brother Gasper is playing with the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL. "It’s made it more comfortable.
"Of course, my father isn’t my coach anymore. But we still talk hockey. He’s very supportive."