It may seem like blasphemy, but Father Time might be catching up with LA Kings captain Anze Kopitar.
For over a decade, Kopitar has been a staple in the center spot on the Kings’ first line. Now in his 16th season, he is already considered to be one of the greatest players in franchise history. In 1,188 games, Kopitar has compiled 361 goals and 690 assists for 1,051 points. He has won two Selke Trophies as the NHL’s top defensive forward, and in 2017-18 finished third in the voting for the Hart Trophy as league MVP.
Don’t forget about the two Stanley Cup victories in 2012 and 2014 that he had a huge hand in.
The 34-year-old Kopitar has been considered one of the top two-way centers in the NHL for nearly his whole career. He has always been a player the Kings can count on in any situation at any time – and more often than not, has risen to the occasion. It is difficult to imagine Kopitar not being at the top of the Kings’ depth chart at the center position.
Kopitar started the 2021-22 season looking like the 2018 Hart Trophy finalist. He put up five points on opening night against the Vegas Golden Knights and had nine points overall in the Kings’ first nine games. For the first few months of the season, the Kings’ captain was among the league’s leaders in points. While he has never been known in particular for his speed, Kopitar was playing with speed, purpose, and confidence.
As the season has worn on, however, the grind of the NHL seems to be taking a toll on Kopitar. He still averages 20:55 of ice time per game, he still wins more faceoffs than he loses and still provides invaluable leadership for a team that has begun the process of integrating its highly-touted prospects into the NHL.
Despite all of this, something seems…off.
Let’s start with the offensive production. In 61 games played this season, Kopitar has 15 goals and 36 assists for 51 points. Not bad at all. However, over his past 10 games, Kopitar has posted just four points (one goal and three assists) with the goal and an assist coming in one game on February 25th against Anaheim. To make things even worse, the goal against Anaheim is his only goal in his last 16 games.
Certainly, Kopitar isn’t the only Kings player who has struggled lately, but with his consistent excellence for so many years, his struggles are more noticeable. I will not present any analytical arguments here. For that, I’ll refer you to Hockey Royalty’s resident analytics experts Russell Morgan and Ryan Sikes and of course the Hockey Royalty Podcast (found on all major podcast platforms, cheap plug I know). From an “eye test” point of view, it just appears that Kopitar is slowing down. He seems to be a half of a step behind the play. In today’s game that emphasizes speed over everything else, it is making it harder for him to keep up.
Is this to say Anze Kopitar is no longer a top center in the NHL? Absolutely and unequivocally NO. Despite the recent struggles, any team would insert him into the top six of their lineup in a heartbeat. What it does suggest is that it’s time to start managing Kopitar’s minutes more regularly as early as next season. The seeds for this were already planted in the off-season when the Kings signed free agent Phillip Danault to a six-year contract. One of the main reasons the former Montreal Canadien and Chicago Blackhawk was brought in was to help alleviate some of the “tough” minutes that Kopitar has been logging for years against opponents’ top centers.
Danault is a centerman in the mold of Anze Kopitar: outstanding 200-foot game and excellent in the faceoff dot. Although he doesn’t have Kopitar’s lofty numbers, Danault is on pace for the best offensive season of his career. Currently, he sits with 17 goals and 35 points in 58 games. Plus/minus isn’t a statistic that carries the weight it used to, but Danault’s +16 is much better than Kopitar’s -7.
At 29 years old, Danault is also five years younger than Kopitar. He has been a revelation this season, playing mostly on a line with Viktor Arvidsson and Trevor Moore while averaging 17:49 in ice time per game. Danault has shown he can handle the responsibilities of being a top-six center, and his presence has allowed Quinton Byfield to develop in the third line center role without the pressure of handling top six responsibilities at this stage in his young career.
With two years remaining on his contract, Kopitar will be a big part of the LA Kings going forward. Regardless of what happens this season, the Slovenian center is still the leader of the Kings and an indispensable part of the club. To get the most out of him, LA needs to strongly consider giving Danault more minutes. Having a 1A/1B setup for their top two centers, while continuing to let Quinton Byfield develop on the third line.
The Kings are expected to be a legitimate playoff contender next season and going forward. An Anze Kopitar who is not overworked would pay huge dividends.
— LA Kings (@LAKings) March 14, 2022