Found March 07, 2012 on Fox Sports West:
Los_angeles_kings_49f0
As the Los Angeles Kings attempted to revitalize their stalled offense over the past month, and as the team slipped from the more comfortable sixth or seventh place perch to toeing the line of the playoff barrier, center Anze Kopitar weathered the most advanced criticism faced in a six-year NHL career that began as a 19-year old rookie in 2006-07. Though selected to two All-Star Games before the age of 24 and averaging nearly 72 points per game in his five previous seasons, there are those who think that there's more to be added to his intelligent, 200-feet-of-the-ice-based game. "He should be a little bit more - he reminds me a little bit of Mats Sundin," six-time 50 goal scorer and Los Angeles Kings legend Marcel Dionne said of Kopitar to MayorsManor.com last week. "They're big guys, but when they get close to the net, they're not aggressive enough. They have to get these guys off their backs because they're big guys. If they're soft there, then you know what, those soft goals don't come." Head coach Darryl Sutter has also in the past poignantly referred to parts in Kopitar's game he'd like to see advancement in, alleging that "he's got to be a guy who plays in the middle of the ice." "When he doesn't, that's the old perimeter player thing. It doesn't matter what sport it is, the guys that are better in the tough parts of the game were the best players. It doesn't matter if it's Kopitar or Richards, or Stoll, whoever it is, that's the centerman's job." It should come naturally for Kopitar, considering how gritty and impactful he's been in his team's defensive efforts, which have often been overshadowed this season by virtue of an offense that only this week emerged from the league's basement in goals per game. When he's the third man low assisting in the defensive zone, it's very difficult for the opposition to find good lanes or open space to send the puck into areas near the net where goals are scored. His stick checking, strength in separating the puck from his opponent and being "always in good position," according to goaltender Jonathan Bernier, make him one of the leading defensive centers in today's NHL. "I think he's a great two-way player, and that's what makes him so good," Bernier said. "He reads the game very good, so he sees the ice. Defensively, he's always low, supporting me, the goalies, and the D-men. He always does the right thing." He's also nearly completed the requisite tasks of competing for the Selke Trophy, the NHL's annual award given to the player who puts up a lot of points and competes hard defensively while playing for a team whose games start while voters are still awake. Ryan Kesler won last year's award and was the first player from a Pacific or Mountain time zone-based team to win the Selke in the 33 seasons since the honor was bestowed upon Montreal Canadien Bob Gainey for the first of his four straight awards in 1978. There may be those in the Selke conversation with marginally louder voices. The winner will likely come from a group of Kesler, Patrice Bergeron, Jonathan Toews, Pavel Datsyuk, Jeff Backes, Ryan Callahan and maybe even Steve Ott, considering what his energy has meant to a feisty Dallas team that occupies the conference's three seed with 15 games to play. But Kopitar is backed by something that only Backes and Callahan can lay claim to the Kings are one of three teams along with the Blues and Rangers that have separated themselves from the rest of the league in the goals they allow per game. St. Louis leads the league with 1.88 goals against, while a full .24 goals separate the Kings' 2.06 at number three from the Red Wings' 2.30 goals allowed at number four. Jonathan Quick's remarkable season has greatly influenced those numbers, but Kopitar, along with Mike Richards and the team's other centers in Jarret Stoll and Colin Fraser are several the more defensively attuned forwards on a team with a reputation of being stingy and difficult to play against, especially in matchups down the center of the ice. "Something that we're really lucky to have as a D-corps is Stolly and Fras," defenseman Matt Greene said, referencing Stoll and Fraser. "Both those guys it's like having a third defenseman in the D-zone. They're awesome. I mean, you give them the puck, and they've got their own ways of doing it. It's not as smooth as Kop and Richie, but then again not a lot of guys are. So they've got their own way of doing it, but every time it's out of the zone. It's on their wingers' tape, and they're breaking out, so it's pretty easy." If there's anyone who can accept the award on the team it's Kopitar, mainly because centers who recorded at least 70 points have won the Selke an "annual award given to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game" for six straight years. John Madden's 38-point season in 2000-01 was the only Selke-winning season with less than 40 points since Guy Carbonneau's 39 points in 1991-92. Centers have won the award 10 out of the last 11 seasons. "There's a certain system that's put in place, and that's about it," Kopitar said of any broad philosophies of playing in his own end of the ice. "After that, you've got to play hockey and read. Obviously, the guys are not predictable out there, and the guys are going to make plays. The guys are going to criss-cross, set picks, and you've got to read off that, and try to defend as best as you can." He's still a considerable longshot for the award, even if he deserves to be among those considered. Perhaps his 14 minutes of penalties accrued by March 7 and the character he exudes on the ice make him more worthy of becoming the first King to be awarded the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy for the first time since Wayne Gretzky in 1994. While only "defensive aspects" are mentioned in the definition of the Selke Trophy, the Lady Byng honors sportsmanship "combined with a high standard of playing ability", and as such, no player in the post-Gretzky era has won the Lady Byng with fewer than Pavol Demitra's 75 points in 1999-00. Despite any mild or moderate criticism lobbied, he's still a player vastly ahead of his age group and whose work ethic and attention towards team play make him among the most valuable developing two-way players in the game. "We talked to our leadership group, and it's difficult for Kopi because he's 24 years old. You forget that," Sutter said. "Most guys are seniors in college or just coming out, so that's a different level above that. You've got to take that into consideration, always." "He's part of that leadership group, but it's part of a group that's got to grow into that. It's not just designated or high profile, it's part of being the type of person you are, and he's a guy that really cares and wants to be a really good player, and he's working at that."
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