Following the Los Angeles Kings’ season-ending loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, news broke that injuries had limited the effectiveness of some of Los Angeles’ top players. According to Pierre LeBrun of ESPN.com, Dustin Brown was playing with a torn PCL, while Justin Williams had suffered a separated shoulder in the second round against the San Jose Sharks. Lisa Dillman of the LA Times also reported that Drew Doughty’s ankle wasn’t exactly at 100%.
One player that wasn’t battling a significant injury was Anze Kopitar, whose tepid offensive production raised not only eyebrows but also questions over whether the star center was hobbled by something more serious than the aftermath of a knee sprain suffered during a game in Sweden shortly before the end of the lockout.
“I guess I’m getting back to no discomfort and good strength in my knee and should be fine,” said Kopitar, who plans to shed the knee brace that he used during the season. “And [in regards to] being injured during this playoffs, there was really no significant injury that I suffered. It’s normal being just banged up a little bit – a few bumps and bruises, but that’s about it.”
It wasn’t injury that limited the output of Kopitar, who scored once in Game 5 and totaled three goals over his final 34 games. It was simply an ill-timed slump that the burgeoning star center faced as his league-wide recognition grew courtesy of a breakthrough performance during a Stanley Cup run the season prior.
“This kid came out of nowhere. He’s on the west coast here, and until he scored that goal against St. Louis coming across, people didn’t know who he was. Heck, maybe the other teams didn’t even know who he was,” General Manager Dean Lombardi said. “But this year, one of the byproducts of him and Doughty and Quick, they get circled. Hey, now you’re going to draw the toughest assignments. You’re going to draw Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester on the back end. So just like the team faced different challenges, individuals faced different challenges. Yeah, it was harder on him, just like it was harder on the team.”
The challenge was one that wore on Kopitar, who appeared playoff-weary but not particularly dejected or ornery during the team’s postseason run.
“I think any guy will tell you that you feel a little down,” he said. “Obviously you’re working hard and the results are not coming and it gets a little bit frustrating. I think the competitive guy that I am, I want to perform every night, and it just wasn’t going. Yeah, feeling down was part of that…Again, I’m pretty sure that it’s not lack of caring or not trying. In fact, sometimes you try even harder and it backfires on you. Maybe that was the case. Again, for me it’s a matter of evaluating things like that and learning from this and for the future trying to get rid of those slumps and definitely not drag them on too long.”
Kopitar, whose defensive and neutral zone traits hardly wavered in his period of diminished offensive output, will turn 26 this off-season. In the maturation of a player who continues to grow alongside a young and prime-approaching core, there are still obstacles to overcome in the quest to reach a collective ceiling, which is remarkably high considering the character and resolve in the room, according to Lombardi.
“This kid is like Drew and so many others. He is far from having maximized his potential, and like I said about every one of those kids, yeah, some of them are going to take a little longer to figure it out,” Lombardi said. “But deep down, they’re a great group of kids. They care about each other, and deep down they’re all competitors. And I have no doubt he’s going to figure out. He just had a different challenge that he never experienced before in his career, and I’ve got the utmost faith [that he’ll think] ‘I realize what this is all about, and if I’m going to be a top, top player in this league a long time, that goes with the turf.’ And they’ve got two things going for them. This group – I’ve been around a while, and people underestimate this, but in this day and age, we all see it with all these sports. We’ve got all the drama and everything else. When you have 20 guys who give a damn about each other and are competitors, you’ve really got something special. That’s what these guys are. Kopi knows not only does he want to do it, but I know he also wants to do it for the guy sitting next to him, and I think that goes for all of them.”