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Sports Then and Now

The Slovenian Superstar: Anze Kopitar of the LA Kings

Posted on November 10, 2009 by Scott Weldon
Vancouver Canucks v Los Angeles Kings

Anze Kopitar is the top scorer in the NHL so far this season.

Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings is the NHL’s leading scorer almost a fifth of the way into the season. His twenty eight points in eighteen games have pushed him past the injured Ovechkin. This is the fourth year in the NHL for the twenty two year old Slovenian. He has flirted with the point a game barrier but this year is looking to smash through it. Kopitar is on pace to score over one hundred and thirty points.

The LA Kings scored the third fewest goals in the league last year ahead of only the Islanders and Colorado. They finished behind such offensive power houses as the understaffed Nashville Predators, the caught in their own trap Minnesota Wild, and even the offensively bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes. This year the Kings are third in the league in scoring behind only Washington and San Jose. They’re threatening to take a playoff spot. It’s not all because of Anze Kopitar, but his breakout season is helping.

Kopitar was busy generating hockey hype as a fourteen year old in his native Slovenia. He was the dominant player in the brand new nation. He played and lead their junior and senior leagues in scoring as a fifteen and sixteen year old.

Still, being the best hockey player in all of Slovenia is a little like being the best short-stop in Iceland; in the big scheme of things it may not mean anything. The nation is a part of the former Yugoslavia and came in to being in 1991. It has a population of two million people. It has a tiny window on the Adriatic and is bordered by Italy on the west, Austria to the north, Hungary to the northeast. Croatia is to the south and east of them. More important they have less then a thousand people playing organized hockey in Slovenia.

Hockey isn’t an absolute sport like pole vaulting. Anze wasn’t clearing six meters so you really couldn’t tell how good in comparison to the rest of the hockey world. He was certainly better then anyone else in Slovenia but relative to kids who would eventually make the NHL that success was meaningless.

Anze started playing for Slovenia in the eighteen or under world junior championships and in the twenty or under while he was sixteen and seventeen. He again excelled. This got him noticed in Sweden and rumours of this young kid from northwestern Yugoslavia were percolating in North America.

The one-time junior superstar is showing that he can be a star in the NHL.

The one-time junior superstar is showing that he can be a star in the NHL.

Sodertalje SK a Swedish hockey franchise, brought Anze over to play in Sweden as a seventeen year old for the 2004-05 season. In Sweden, Sodertalje started him in their eighteen and under league. They immediately bumped him up to the twenty and under league, roughly equivalent to Canadian Junior A hockey. He lead that league in scoring as a seventeen year old with twenty eight goals and forty nine points in thirty games. Anze could play.

They moved him up to play five regular season games and ten playoff games in the senior Swedish league that year. He was playing against grown-ups in the best league in Sweden.       

He played at the World Championships for Slovenia in 2005. Slovenia only managed one goal in the first round in group B with Canada, the US and Latvia. He managed to score a goal in the relegation round in a 4-3 victory over Denmark that helped keep his nation from being relegated.

This was his playing history before Anze Kopitar was drafted in the NHL. It’s still amazing that NHL scouts found this player and valued him so highly. He’d played what amounts to one year of junior hockey in Sweden. The good news was he’d lead that league in scoring. NHL central scouting had him rated as the best skater coming out of Europe that year. He was as high as fifth overall on some draft lists (TSN).

It’s hard to be the first to try something. Wilt Chamberlain was heavily recruited out of high school to play basketball at a variety of universities. Wilbur Stalcup the coach from Missouri is reported to have asked him during an attempt at recruitment, ”Boy, how would you like to be the first Negro to play at the University of Missouri?”  Wilt Chamberlain claims he answered, “I think I’d rather be the second one.” Not for these reasons a lot of NHL teams must have been reluctant to be the first team in the NHL to draft a Slovenian. There was just no record of how good he could be. Would Anze be physical enough to play in the NHL?

The 2005 NHL entry draft was an exceptional one. Sidney Crosby was the first pick that year followed by Bobby Ryan and Jack Johsnon.  The first twelve picks have all made it to the NHL. Seventy six players from this draft have played at least one NHL game. There are numerous players from this draft who already proved themselves to be legitimate NHL players and others who appear on the cusp of doing so. It takes a lot of courage to choose a young man from a non-hockey nation, with one year of Swedish junior hockey under his belt, in the first round. Especially when there are Marc Staal’s, Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s, Ondrej Pavelec’s, Paul Stasny’s and Kris Letang’s to choose from. A bad first round pick can drag a team down for years to come.

It was no surprise then when the Montreal Canadiens with the fifth pick took Carey Price. The Columbus Blue Jackets in sixth took Gilbert Brule’. The Blackhawks drafted  from a deep American talent pool,  Jack Skille. The San Jose Sharks took Devin Setoguchi. Ottawa took Brian Lee, yikes they might want that one back. Luc Bourdon went to Vancouver. Finally it was the LA Kings with the eleventh pick. They already had two fine young forwards who’d faced off against each other in a classic World Junior championship gold medal game in 2002. Alexander Frolov and Mike Cammalleri were destined to lead this team to greatness it seemed and they were from Russia and Canada. Los Angeles thankfully decided they still needed more young offensively talented forwards. They took the Slovenian 11th overall in that very deep amateur draft and he hasn’t disappointed.

Kopitar has looked at home in LA almost immediately. Drafted in 2005 he spent a year in the Swedish elite league. He came to LA the next year and didn’t spend a minute in the minors. He played seventy-two games as a rookie and got twenty goals and sixty one points. The big smooth skating kid was built for the NHL. To watch him play you can’t imagine him not being an NHL star. He played a full season the next year and got seventy seven points. There was a step backwards when Mike Cammalleri was dealt for a draft pick. Still he played another full season and lead the team in scoring just like he did in Slovenia and Sweden. Now this kid with the quick shot and the star presence is leading the NHL in scoring. Playing on a line with new additions Ryan Smyth and Justin Williams he’s playing dominant offensive hockey. Anze Kopitar is helping remake an LA King team into a playoff contender. He’s a lock to finish in the top ten in scoring this year if he stays healthy. Could he lead the league in scoring? It’s unlikely but the kid from Slovenia is taking a run at it. He hasn’t found a challenge yet he can’t meet.

Scott Weldon covers the NHL for Sports Then and Now.

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