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    Kings captain Anze Kopitar still setting the pace, creating a culture
    • April 14, 2023

    Kings center Anze Kopitar is congratulated as he skates past the bench after scoring a goal during the first period of their game against the Ducks on Thursday night at Honda Center. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

    The Kings’ Anze Kopitar, right, fends off the Ducks’ Simon Benoit for the puck along the boards during the third period on Thursday night at Honda Center. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

    Kings center Anze Kopitar (11) celebrates after right wing Adrian Kempe (9) scored during the third period of their game against the Ducks on Thursday night at Honda Center. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

    The Kings’ Anze Kopitar, right, celebrates with Adrian Kempe, center, and Quinton Byfield after Kopitar scored a goal during the first period of their game against the Ducks on Thursday night at Honda Center. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

    The Kings’ Anze Kopitar, right, scores past Ducks goaltender John Gibson during the first period of their regular-season finale on Thursday night at Honda Center. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)



    ANAHEIM — Before this season began, one veteran scribe sat beside Kings captain Anze Kopitar and pondered if perhaps it wasn’t time for another skater to lead the club in scoring.

    It seemed like a valid question given that he’d paced the Kings in points for 14 of the previous 15 campaigns and the team was transitioning back to competitiveness.

    Eighty-two games and 74 points later, Kopitar gave everyone a definitive answer: not this year.

    Not only did Kopitar surpass the injured Kevin Fiala for sole possession of the team scoring title in Thursday night’s regular-season finale, a 5-3 victory over the Ducks, but he had already received nods as the Kings’ most valuable player and best defensive player, as voted by the local media, earlier in the day.

    “He views himself as a top player and he wants to continue to be a top player. He’s held that crown with the Kings for a long, long time,” said Dave Taylor, with whom Kopitar has jockeyed around franchise leaderboards and who drafted Kopitar during his time as general manager.

    Taylor said a 17-year-old Kopitar was the best player on the Slovenian senior national team as well as the second best in his draft class behind Sidney Crosby (Kopitar has single-handedly scored more points than the eight players selected between him and No. 2 pick Bobby Ryan combined). Longtime teammate Dustin Brown said he felt Kopitar was the best player in Kings training camp a few months later, even though Kopitar opted to return to Europe for one more season.

    So much has happened since, including three trips to the Western Conference finals and the only two Stanley Cup championships in Kings lore, from 2012 and 2014.

    “It’s super hard to say exactly what it is that he does, I mean he does so much,” forward Trevor Moore said. “It’s amazing that he’s a guy who was leading the team to Stanley Cups before and then he went through a rebuild, and you know how hard it is to go through a rebuild and have another team that can be a playoff-contending team. Leading the team in the scoring and all this stuff, he’s not done, he’s still pushing.”

    Across 17 seasons with the Kings, Kopitar has reached the top five in franchise history in all 10 major offensive categories and plus-minus rating. He has also put himself in the same breath as Chicago’s Jonathan Toews and Boston’s Patrice Bergeron as the two-way centers par excellence of their generation. They’ve each spent their entire career with one franchise and have combined to win six Stanley Cups, with Kopitar getting a shot at a third this season while Bergeron’s Bruins enter the postseason as favorites to win his second.

    Kopitar is the only one of the three competitors to capture the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward and also be named a finalist for the Hart Trophy as its most valuable player during his career. In league history, only five other players – Bobby Clarke, Pavel Datsyuk, Sergei Fedorov, Doug Gilmour and Steve Yzerman – have accomplished that feat. Yet since winning his second Selke in three seasons in 2018, Kopitar hasn’t finished in the top five in voting.

    “The fans, the media, sometimes even coaches and teammates take him for granted, and it’s the wrong thing to do because he does so many things for the group as a whole,” Coach Todd McLellan said. “We see him do the things on the ice, but it’s off the ice as well, the leadership skills that he provides for not only the young players but the veteran players.”

    As if his own contributions across every centimeter of the ice and in the dressing room weren’t enough, Kopitar has also elevated the play of his teammates. In the final campaign of Brown’s career and the first of his retirement, Kopitar skated alongside Adrian Kempe. Kempe had scored 55 goals in 312 career games entering last season, but he erupted for 75 in 160 matches during two campaigns on Kopitar’s flank.

    “He’s the guy that can do it all. He’s great in the D-zone, he helped me a lot there, and in the O-zone, too,” Kempe said. “He’s such a strong person on the puck, and he just finds me when I’m open. He’s probably the biggest (reason) why I’ve been scoring so many goals lately.”

    Kopitar’s impact extends beyond his linemates or even the forward grouping, his teammates said.

    “I think he’s one of the most underrated if not the most underrated guy, especially defensively. He’s so smart,” defenseman Mikey Anderson said. “He’s got such a good stick, he handles pucks probably better than anyone I’ve seen. Just overall, his mindset, every day, he helps us defensemen out and makes our game really easy.”

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    Having arrived at an organization that then featured current GM Rob Blake as a player, Kopitar’s tenure, which began in 2006 and saw him become team captain a decade later, has spanned generations. Of his 17 seasons, he’s only failed to top the team in scoring twice, his rookie year and in 2016-17, all while drawing top defensive assignments, D-zone faceoff duty and eschewing opportunities to cheat for points.

    Kopitar’s quest to win a third ring and his first as captain begins Monday night, when the Kings will open their first-round playoff series in Edmonton for a rematch of last year’s grueling seven-game series with the Oilers.

    There, Anderson took down one Oilers superstar, Leon Draisaitl, causing an injury that limited his effectiveness. Last month, another Edmonton phenom, Connor McDavid, boarded Anderson, causing him to miss six games with an upper-body injury. Anderson, like Kopitar and fellow Cup-winning mainstay Drew Doughty, will shoulder heavy defensive responsibility in the series.

    “Once you get out there for Game 1, it’s going to ramp up. Both teams are going to feel it,” Anderson said.

    ​ Orange County Register