Anze Kopitar doesn’t look like a guy who is recovering from the first serious injury of his career. These days he looks like a normal, healthy hockey player. He’s taller than most, he’s visibly stronger than most, and his mop top is curlier than most. The little tell-tale signs that clue outsiders that he’s an imposing professional athlete. Just looking at him—is this really the guy who suffered a gruesome injury towards the end of the regular season last year?
He looks exactly as you’d expect a professional athlete to look. Yet simple visuals don’t tell the entire story of the last six months of his life, the lost expectations that followed him to the locker room on that fateful Saturday afternoon last March, or the expectations that now sit on his healthy, broad shoulders. By all accounts, Anze Kopitar is just another healthy NHL player this preseason looking to get his season started on the right foot (no pun intended). Kings head coach Terry Murray has said that Kopitar has put in the offseason work that the organization expected as he recovered from his injury:
“Kopitar is coming back off of a very serious injury and he looks great,” he said. “He spent a hard summer again with the conditioning program. He looks good in the first few days of the training camp. He’s a great player and he just keeps getting better as he gets more mature and experienced in the game.”
Despite seeing his season cut short, Kopitar still managed to score 25 goals and 72 points in 75 games. The seven games he missed at the end of the season were the first games he had missed since his rookie year in 2006-07. But it wasn’t just the games he missed—it was the timing of his injury.
Kopitar recently spoke about watching his team perform in the playoffs without him. “Yeah, that was definitely tough. The timing of my injury was bad and obviously missing the playoffs was [bad]. Just not being able to help them on the ice, it was tough to watch.”
The casual observer sees Kopitar, the flashy offense, and the point-per-game stats and understands that losing their #1 center created a huge void in the Kings lineup. But people around the team will tell you that it wasn’t the offense that the Kings missed the most during their first round series against the San Jose Sharks. In the six playoff games without their star center, the Kings still managed 20 goals. Instead, it was Kopitar’s two-way ability and presence in the important moments of a game that the Kings missed most.
“Last season was probably the best season I’ve had as a two-way player,” Kopitar said. “The stats came out a little better than previous years. I just want to build on that. I don’t want to be just pushing the offensive side right now because we have Mike [Richards] coming in and [Jarret] Stoll being our third guy. But the game isn’t going to change for me.”
He has the skill of a small, talented player. He has the defensive awareness of a man with half his skill. And has the maturity of players twice his age.
Over the course of the preseason, Kopitar will look to regain the timing that made him an all-star last season. Management and the coaching staff have both acknowledge that he’s 100% and Murray has explained that he has no hesitation to put him out in any situation. The head coach went on to admit that, instead of protecting Kopitar in the preseason, he expected to push him a little harder to “get him back into it.”
For the Kings to accomplish all of their lofty goals this season, they’ll need a healthy Kopitar to continue to grow into the true #1 center that he’s shown signs of becoming. The team is deep down the middle with new acquisition Mike Richards and the versatile Jarret Stoll, but Kopitar still sits at the head of the class. As far as 1-2 punches go, the Kopitar/Richards duo is as formidable as any in the Western Conference.
The next step is to show the league they as good on the ice as they are on paper. A healthy Kopitar will go a long way towards exhibiting their strength for the entire league to see.