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No Pressure, Anze: LA's Rise Depends on Super-Skilled Kopitar

Aug 31, 2009 – 12:00 PM
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Christopher Botta

Christopher Botta %BloggerTitle%

With the departure of veteran Derek Armstrong, Anze Kopitar assumes a lofty position in the Los Angeles Kings' locker room. "At the ping-pong table," said defenseman Peter Harrold, "Anze is now unquestionably the No. 1 seed."

"I don't know about that," Kopitar said with a slight laugh while driving around his adopted city of Los Angeles. "Dustin Brown is worthy, Matt Greene's got a good serve. We have a pretty deep roster."

Table tennis controversy aside, no one engages in debate when it comes to Kings hockey. The success of LA's roster overhaul of the last three years hinges on Kopitar rising from anonymous all-star to breakout superstar. No pressure, Anze.

"He's a point-a-game player, a true No. 1 center -- no question in any of our minds," said assistant general manager Ron Hextall. "It's only an issue of whether Anze will become one of the top 10 centers in the league." A pro scout from one of the Kings' division rivals raises the stakes: "We view Kopitar as someone on the verge of stardom."

The fourth-year pro embraces the challenge.

"It's fun," said Kopitar. "I like it. This is not pressure. It's an honor to hear that kind of talk. I came here to play in the best league in the world and hopefully be considered as one of the best players. Most of all, I want to win. I want the responsibility."

******

When Kopitar "came here," it was an atypical NHL transition. The 11th overall selection in the 2005 draft, the 6-4 center is the first player in league history from the country of Slovenia. Raised in the steel town of Jesenice, across the border from Austria, Kopitar's unfamiliar background had scouts questioning whether he was early first round material despite his obvious gifts. "To be honest," said a scout who follows European amateurs for a Western Conference team, "Kopitar was so big and so skilled that if he was from Saskatoon, he would have been a top-3 pick. Slovenia was the great unknown."

"No weaknesses ... He was playing against the best and held his own. He had star potential and we knew the rest of the league would be following him."The tantalizing prospect was first "identified" -- scout-talk for "Hey, we have to keep an eye on this kid" -- by former European bird-dog Ari Vuori for the Kings. Pro scout Rob Laird and then-GM Dave Taylor spent a lot of time at the 2005 World Championships in Sweden mesmerized by Kopitar's immense talents. "No weaknesses, great size and reach, took passes 15 feet in front of him, composure, work ethic," Laird recalled of Kopitar. "He was playing against the best and held his own. He had star potential and we knew the rest of the league would be following him." (The hockey gods have since rewarded Vuori, now the owner of a Stanley Cup ring as a scout for Detroit).

FanHouse asked a second scout for his notes from his trips to watch Kopitar, who played in Sweden's top junior league as a 17-year-old. The European scout for an Eastern Conference team wrote the following in an email:

"In Anze's draft year he was the talk of the European scouting community. It was obvious how gifted he was, but you had to wonder if he had the hockey culture because of his roots in Slovenia. His father was a prominent coach, including his work with the men's national team. That eased some concerns.

"Kopitar had a lot of success in Sweden and played some games in the Elite League that year. He also played at the World Championships in Austria and held his own against NHL- caliber players. It isn't a surprise to see him have quick success in the NHL. He's a very talented player and, by all accounts when we were doing our background checks, he's a first-class kid."

A reference check with Kings players, executives and staffers verifies the latter statement: Kopitar is a good-looking hockey player and has personality. "Just a great kid who does the right things and has the approach you want from one of your leaders and stars," said Hextall. "Always has a smile on his face, gets involved in our community work, totally humble," said longtime Kings communications VP Mike Altieri. Said Harrold, the fourth-year defenseman: "Great teammate, fun to be around, but he takes his role as one of our best players seriously. "Anze never stops working to improve. His ability to adapt from Slovenia and Sweden to the culture of Los Angeles ... he's made it look easy."

Kopitar's secret to his trouble-free transition? "I didn't whine about it. I just played hockey and didn't worry about anything else." He's also had the support of his father, mother and younger brother Gasper, who moved with him to California. As a result, Kopitar has emerged as the best forward among the group taken after Sidney Crosby at No. 1 and before him at pick 11 in the first round of 2005: Bobby Ryan, Benoit Pouliot, Gilbert Brule, Jack Skille and Devin Setoguchi. Maybe some of those scouts should have pretended Kopitar was from Saskatoon.

******


The latest proof of Kopitar's commitment to his craft came in July, when he returned to Los Angeles for an intensive three-week program under new strength coach Tim Adams. Kopitar said he "immediately clicked" with Adams -- formerly with the NFL Broncos and the Raiders -- and appreciated his efforts to break up the monotony of a day in the weight room. "We even did some running on the beach in LA," said Kopitar. "I was a big fan of that exercise."

Lovely scenery aside, Kopitar is serious about putting himself in the best position to succeed. Kings management was not alarmed by their franchise forward's five-goal, nine-point dropoff from his stunning 32-45-77 second season in 2007-8. Hextall cites the youngster's increased defensive responsibilities and an adjustment to the system of new coach Terry Murray. Kopitar was not as forgiving of himself. "No excuses," he said, "I have to be better."

Anze Kopitar, by the numbers

Games
Goals
Assists
Points
+/-
Shot %
2006-'07 72 20
41 61
-12 .104
2007-'08 82 32
45 77
-15
.159
2008-'09 82
27
39 66
-17
.115

The Kings certainly will be in 2009-10, thanks to the major offseason deal for scoring left wing/leader Ryan Smyth and free agent signing of defenseman Rob Scuderi, last seen saving goals for Pittsburgh on their way to the Stanley Cup. Their arrival appears to be a message from GM Dean Lombardi that the Kings are no longer building for the future, that anything less than the franchise's first playoff appearance since 2002 is acceptable. Scuderi brings experience to a blueline that includes youngsters Jack Johnson, Greene, Harrold and 2008 second overall pick Drew Doughty. Smyth will be a mentor for the Kings' dazzling trio of young forwards: captain Dustin Brown, 32-goal scorer Alexander Frolov and, of course, Kopitar.

Harrold, echoing his teammates, says the respect in the room for Kopitar is profound because of his commitment to improve at every practice. "I don't know of a young player with his all-world talent who works harder to become stronger, faster, more complete." Harrold is convinced his friend is ready to join the rung of NHL stars like Kane, Kovalchuk, Staal and Nash, just below the constellation of Crosby, Malkin and Ovechkin. "When this franchise takes the next step, you'll hear Kopey's name when they talk about the top players of this generation."

Kopitar is quick to point out personal accolades are earned as a leader on a contender.

"Our team, we've talked a lot about taking that next step," said Kopitar, who just turned 22 last week. "That's all that matters to me. I came back to Los Angeles this summer because I want to be able to play 25 minutes a game and be as strong at the end of the game as I am at the beginning. I want to be the player everyone is counting on."

He already is.
Filed under: Sports
Tagged: Anze Kopitar

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