It says a lot about Anze Kopitar – and the Kings – that he’s led them as top scorer in 14 of the last 15 seasons.
“Did he direct it last year?” asked longtime teammate Drew Doughty. “I thought Phil won.”
nope Phillip Danault, center No. 2, made a strong impression in his Kings debut but finished third with 51 points behind Kopitar (67) and Adrian Kempe (54).
It was imperative for Kopitar to lead the Kings on the scoring charts as they built up to their 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup championships when they were at their peak, and then to keep them credible through their painful decline. A No. 1 center needs to carry his team, and Kopitar has done so at both ends of the ice at the elite level. Only Jeff Carter has interrupted the Slovenia center’s dominance in 2016/17 since a 20-year-old copitar succeeded Michael Cammalleri as the team’s league leader in 2007/08.
But with the Kings rising again, they would be better off without Kopitar leading them this season. At the very least, he needs to be seriously challenged for supremacy because that means they have accumulated enough skill and depth of goal to be in contention for the trophy again.
Danault hinted he could be their top point producer as he scored a career-best 27 goals last season. Kempe has more than doubled his career-high 35 goals, but he’s a marksman and doesn’t collect assists. Winger Kevin Fiala had 33 goals and 85 points for Minnesota last season and could match or surpass that with a long power play. Quinton Byfield must prove he can handle the third-line center role before he can become an impact scorer.
Doughty can see Kopitar being pushed. But not passed. “It’s always going to be hard to beat Kopi at goalscoring. He’s our #1 for all of that stuff,” Doughty said. “Guys like Fiala or Kempe or Danault might have an opportunity to surpass him but to be honest I don’t really see that. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was 15 out of 16.”
Kopitar turned 35 in August, but he thinks the game fast and doesn’t just rely on speed. Danault’s arrival allowed coach Todd McLellan to drop Kopitar’s average ice time from 21 minutes 11 seconds to 20:46 last season, although Kopitar still led the Kings forwards and trailed behind defenders Doughty (25:44) and Matt Roy ( 20:44) finished third overall. 59). He posted a career-high 71 blocks and attempted 353 shots, his most since 2011-12, and won the Mark Messier Leadership Award.
McLellan said Kopitar, Danault, Byfield and energetic center Blake Lizotte will define their playing time this season by their performances. Finding time for everyone would be a good problem.
“Kopi is still a high-end player who can play high-end minutes on our team or any other team in the league,” McLellan said. “You could drop him off at the Stanley Cup champions and they’re going to play him those minutes because he’s a good player.”
Kopitar, who has captained the Kings since the ‘C’ was awkwardly peeled off by Dustin Brown in 2016, was grateful Danault had taken on some of his workload. But Kopitar doesn’t acknowledge age.
“I feel good, I feel in good shape and still young enough to run every minute,” said Kopitar, who focused on Fiala and Kempe during the training camp and will run alongside them at the season opener.
“Whoever wins the scoring title it’s good for me or whoever it’s going to be. But it’s a team game. This is what we have done in recent years and this is what we must do. It’s about making sure the team plays the way we need to play to make the playoffs and then going deep and eventually going all the way again.
Signing Danault as a free agent in 2021 was a morale-boosting move from general manager Rob Blake. It told the players that he had realized they had made enough progress that investing in a top six forward made strategic sense; Danault exceeded expectations and played a key role in their return to the playoffs.
By acquiring Fiala and quickly signing a seven-year, $55.1 million deal, Blake told the players they deserved to have another asset that could help them go past a playoff round next time .
“The feeling is good, of course,” said Kopitar. “I think it was a big step last year, especially with all the injuries going through that dressing room throughout the season and a much-needed gain of experience. Because playing 7 in a game is a different type of deal than a 4-1 series [loss] or 4-0. The majority of young people who haven’t experienced it now know what it feels like and what to expect.”
Brown’s retirement leaves Kopitar, Doughty and goalkeeper Jonathan Quick as the only remnants of the Cup-winning teams. Doughty is signed until 2026-27 but Quick is in the final season of his contract and Kopitar is signed until 2023-24. The time window in which they can win together is getting narrower and narrower.
It is not closed but there is some urgency. “I really think before the three of us retire we’ve got at least one trophy left in us,” Doughty said.
It’s not impossible. But for that to happen soon, Kopitar needs to be his old self and his younger teammates need to put on a good run to take the team championship crown from him.
“I think we’re on the old side of things right now, but between me, Quickie and Drew, I think we have quite a bit left,” Kopitar said.
“With the youngsters developing as fast and as well as they do, I think it’s definitely an opportunity to win again.”
https://www.latimes.com/sports/hockey/story/2022-10-03/kings-stanley-cup-contenders-anze-kopitar-phillip-danault-drew-doughty Younger Kings players must beat Anze Kopitar for scoring title