Why Anze Kopitar beats Gretzky and Dionne as king of Kings

Kings center Anze Kopitar always knew where he wanted to go, never mind the prohibitive odds stacked against him.

He was determined to become a professional hockey player, even though his homeland of Slovenia — part of Yugoslavia until 1991 — had little hockey tradition and few ice rinks. He realized at a young age he would have to use not only his abundant skills but his brain, carefully planning each step to gain any possible toehold or advantage.

So when his grandmother, Marjana Katnik, brought tests home from the school where she taught elementary English, he’d take those exams himself. She graded his work against kids who were two or three years older. “It was always a wild dream to play in the NHL,” he said, “but I always thought I was going to need English for either traveling or playing somewhere else other than Slovenia. I guess it ended up pretty well.”

There’s an understatement.

In 2006 he became the first Slovenian to play in the NHL. He’s now a two-time Stanley Cup champion, two-time winner of the Selke trophy as the league’s best defensive forward, and twice the winner of the Lady Byng trophy for sportsmanship and exceptional play. Still on top of his game at 36 and on track to lead the team in scoring for the 16th time in the last 17 seasons, he has become the king of Kings, the greatest player to wear their uniform.

“Absolutely,” teammate Trevor Lewis, noting Kopitar’s Cup titles and impressive resume. “I don’t know if there’s too much else you can do.

“He’s a one-of-a-kind player.”

What about Marcel Dionne, you say? Kopitar passed him for the franchise lead in assists on Dec. 3 with his 758th but is second to Dionne in points as a King, 1,307-1,168. Dionne scored more than 100 points in a season eight times in his career — Kopitar’s most productive season was 92 points in 2017-18 — but Kopitar has played in a lower-scoring era. And if Kopitar hadn’t always sacrificed scoring to be a standout two-way player, he’d surely have recorded several 100-point seasons.

Anze Kopitar celebrates with the Stanley Cup following the Kings’ win over the New Jersey Devils in 2012.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“I’m sure he could. There’s no doubt in my mind,” teammate Drew Doughty said. “He’s a great playmaker. He’s got a great shot. But he wants to win championships, and he knows to win championships, you need to play both ways. And as a leader on the team, if you are playing that way, that makes everybody else fall into place and have to play that way, too.”

Dionne, reached by email, said he doesn’t know Kopitar personally but respects his game. “Great player, plays both ways of the ice,” Dionne wrote. “He is very resilient playing a long time. Great career.”

If we’re talking about the greatest King, what about the Great One, Wayne Gretzky? He scored a staggering 918 points in 539 games as a King but he never led them to the Cup. Kopitar was a vital force in both of the team’s championship runs, and that counts for a lot.

Dustin Brown? A commanding captain and fearsome physical force, but Kopitar outscored him by more than 450 points. And early this season, Kopitar broke Brown’s team record of 1,296 regular-season games played.

Stalwart Dave Taylor? Hard-hitting Rob Blake? Prolific Luc Robitaille? All admirable but none won the Cup as a Kings player, though Blake and Robitaille returned to win as club executives. And none of them had Kopitar’s well-rounded game. “He’s just as good defensively as he is offensively and he’s the best player in all situations for us,” Lewis said.

Team player that Kopitar is, he deflected the idea that he ranks above the luminaries who came before him.

“It’s nice to be on the same page with those guys,” he said. “They didn’t win the Cup here, but I feel they paved the way for us to grow hockey in Southern California and just be able to play here, because if they weren’t as great as they were, maybe hockey wouldn’t be as big as it is here. It’s all a balance thing.”

And on balance, Kopitar is No. 1.

The Kings will honor him Jan. 24 for having scored his 400th career goal on Nov. 9, breaking Brown’s games-played record and Dionne’s assist standard, and for moving up to No. 2 in points behind Dionne this season. But he’s content to hold off on assessing his career until he’s done. Which won’t be for a while: Last summer he signed an extension through 2025-26.

Kings captain Anze Kopitar controls the puck during a win over the Montreal Canadiens on Dec. 7.

Anze Kopitar controls the puck during a win over the Montreal Canadiens on Dec. 7.

(Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images)

“It’s really hard for me to sit here and say I’m the greatest King. That’s just not my personality. Far from it,” he said. “There’s been great Kings in this organization, with Marcel, Luc, Dave, Wayne, Blakey. The list can go on for a little bit. Brownie. Individually, yes, but it’s about collective wins.

“Yes, my numbers are good or decent or whatever you want to call it. But I’ve always been a guy that wanted to win. Numbers are all great, but it’s the two Stanley Cups that stick out. You can’t do that individually. We had great teams. Great chemistry. A lot of camaraderie. I feel like it’s a little bit more measurable toward that, maybe, than just goals and assists.”

His belief the Kings are well along on the road to Cup contention again was strong motivation for him to sign the extension. Blake, as general manager, has followed the traditional model of building strength up the middle by signing Phillip Danault as a free agent and acquiring Pierre-Luc Dubois, though newcomer Dubois still hasn’t contributed much on offense. Energetic Blake Lizotte has been an ideal fourth-line center.

That depth and coach Todd McLellan’s decision to not always send Kopitar out to start the penalty kill have cut into Kopitar’s average time on ice, leaving it a near career-low 19 minutes, 27 seconds per game. Yet, he’s still averaging a point per game, with 12 goals and 27 points in 27 games, and he has matched his single-season best by winning 57.3% of the faceoffs he takes, topping his career average of 53.5%

The decrease in his ice time isn’t because his game is fading. Far from it.

“He probably would say he’s lost a little bit of speed, but most of it is just other guys getting faster,” said Doughty, who ranks third in games played as a King at 1,122. “I don’t think he’s personally lost much speed. Besides that, he doesn’t need to be a fast player. He’s just smarter than almost every player on the ice. He knows what spots to be in. I haven’t seen his game change, to be honest.”

Kopitar isn’t complaining about his reduced minutes.

“The fact of the matter is I’m 36 years old, too, so recovery is not as great as it was 10 years ago. We can’t sit here and pretend that it is,” he said. “But listen, we’re getting the ice time and it shows that we have a good team. You have to spread the minutes. It shows we have good depth. I’m very OK with that.”

Kings captain Anze Kopitar celebrates with defenseman Drew Doughty after a 6-3 win over the Arizona Coyotes on Oct. 24.

Kings captain Anze Kopitar celebrates with defenseman Drew Doughty after a 6-3 win over the Arizona Coyotes on Oct. 24.

(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

He says he has no regrets about his Kings career, despite enduring rough patches during management’s delayed rebuild after the 2012 and 2014 Cup triumphs. His daughter, Neza, who will be 9 in March, and son Jakob, who turned 7 in October, are old enough to understand what he does. They were born here, and his wife, Ines, and brother, Gasper, have thrived here. “I can’t imagine myself being anywhere else,” he said.

At least during his playing career. After he’s done, he said, there’s a 99.9% chance he will move his family back to Slovenia. “We feel very much like home here, but when you go home it touches a little bit more,” he said. “And I’m a guy that over the summer needs a little bit of a scenery change and recharge and to get away from this place so when you come back here you’re hungry again and ready to get going.”

If he goes back where it all began, he can give himself an “A” for English and an A-plus for his career as the king of Kings. He wears the crown honorably.

We’d like to hear from readers. Who do you consider the 10 greatest Kings of all time? Wayne Gretzky? Marcel Dionne? Anze Kopitar? Gary Shuchuk?

Rank them in order from 1-10, or your ballot won’t count. Email them to [email protected].

Points will be awarded based on where you rank each player (12 points for first, nine for second, eight for third, etc.) Results will be announced Friday in the Sports Report newsletter.

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