2023 Exit Interviews – Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Phillip Danault

Beginning our player exit interview articles with the captains – Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Phillip Danault.

All three players had an uptick in their offensive production from last season to this season, with Kopitar leading the team in scoring once again and Doughty pacing the defensemen. Danault saw his goal total fall from last season’s career high, but his point production across 82 games was greater than a season ago. All three are signed for next season – more on Kopitar’s contract status to follow – and all three will continue in their leadership roles, with the Kings confident in their leaders, both with letters and without.

Hear, watch and read more from all three players below.

Anze Kopitar

Progress Made, But Not Enough
The title sums it up, though Kopitar’s words add to the context.

There was progress made from last year to this year, with the team finding what Kopitar believed to be consistency throughout the regular season. Once they got through that opening couple of months, he believed there were fewer ups and downs this year than last. Once the group established the way it needed to play, it was much smoother sailing than it was a season ago.

With that said, though, the round-one defeat still stings. Kopitar was able to express both in his opening remarks.

“Definitely a sour taste, we had some other plans, but it didn’t turn out that way,” he said. “We’re frustrated right now, pissed off, as we should be, losing is definitely not fun. At the same time, I’m sure in a week or two or three, we’ll look back on this and realize that we’ve made some good progress again, the team is coming together and we’re making the right steps and growing as we should. We’ll look forward to where we need to go and what we need to improve on so this doesn’t happen again.

Progress is great, and it was made, but that doesn’t mean he’s content with a first-round exit.

No one was content last year, but the expectations were simply different. It was a return to the postseason and the Kings exceeded external expectations by just qualifying, and again by pushing the Oilers to Game 7. This season was different. The Kings traded future assets for immediate help and improved as a result. The expectations were higher because the team was better and Kopitar believed in that. As a result, he was naturally not happy bowing out in the opening round once again.

“Last year, we were happy to make it in and this year we were expected to make it in,” Kopitar said. “We’re certainly not happy with the first-round exit……Like I said, after this year, guys are pissed off, which is a good thing.”

Several players, including the captain, were asked about the concept of a “championship window”. Kopitar was obviously one of them. He pointed first to the progress of the team during the regular season, as a sign of maturity and progress, but acknowledged that the team wasn’t yet ready to take that next step. If it’s not now though, he believe it’s approaching and he’s been a part of that step before.

Now, it’s time for this team to take that step as well.

“I’ve seen this group mature now,” he added. “If you look at our regular season, there weren’t too many roller coaster rides where we got too hot or too cold. Obviously I think that’s really good. I think this window, if we’re not quite there yet, is approaching. Like I said before, we’re taking strides in the right direction, the group is getting tight. I’ve seen that before.”

Talking Line 1, Player-By-Player
From late-December through Game 5, Kopitar had a steady line between Adrian Kempe and Quinton Byfield. Kopitar and Kempe became an established pairing last season, but the third member of that line was consistently rotated. The same could be said during the early stages of this season, with Kevin Fiala, Gabe Vilardi and Arthur Kaliyev all used in that spot, but eventually it was Byfield who moved to the wing and assumed the role for the bulk of the season.

Kopitar reflected on the play of both of his linemates, now having the opportunity to look back.

Kopitar on Kempe – Juice made up another step forward, which was great to see this year. He was a 40-goal scorer and that says a lot, without saying a lot really. Like I said last night, he’s so much more to this team than just a goalscorer. He plays in every situation possible and he’s embraced it. He’s become a complete player

Kopitar on Byfield – Q got the taste of the top line and everything that comes with it, playing against the top players, playing against the top d-pairing, being expected to bring it every night. I think he’s made a tremendous step forward to realizing that. He was playing good and I know the stats don’t show it, he didn’t score a ton of goals, but he was making plays that the goals did happen [off of], the plays at the end a game to win the game. That was him and it was great to see him grow and be on the path for him to where we need him to be to be successful.

Kopitar is always one to expand on his teammates, but rarely upon his own play. As evidenced above, he was happy with the development of both Kempe and Byfield, believing that the play of both individuals helped him at both ends of the ice. Still, Kopitar had another terrific season, one which will likely land him votes in both the Selke and Lady Byng categories. His, briefer, thoughts on his own campaign.

“It was decent, better than last year, I felt better, I guess the numbers were better, but none of this matters if you don’t win,” he added. “I’m happy because we made it into the playoffs but not happy because we got bounced in the first round. I guess, looking back, it was pretty decent.”

It’s Been Awhile
Anze Kopitar hasn’t negotiated a contract since 2016.

In January of that year, still six months out from unrestricted free agency, Kopitar signed an eight-year contract extension that took him through his age-36 season. Come this summer, he would finally be eligible to sign another extension, with eight-years time really the only change in terms of his play. Kopitar was, once again, the team’s leading scorer and his two-way game in the second half of the season was once again elite.

His teammates spoke at length about his impact in a variety of different areas, covered HERE from the end of the regular season.

Kopitar reiterated what we all assumed he would – he wants to be a one-franchise player. It certainly did not sound like he had any intention of retiring and his level of play this season was high, as it’s always been. So, with those factors in place, he’s more than willing to negotiate when the time comes.

“For sure. I’ve said before, there’s no secret, that I want to stay here and be a one-franchise player. We’ll see how that goes.”

For what it’s worth Rob Blake seemed extremely interested on his end as well, echoing similar thoughts to Kopitar on wanting him to remain with the franchise beyond this contract. Kopitar and the Kings could agree to an extension as early as July 1, which was the date that defenseman Drew Doughty last signed his own long-term extension, exactly one year out from unrestricted free agency.

Nothing urgent, as we’re still two months from that point, but one to keep an eye on for sure.

Drew Doughty

Expecting More
Doughty isn’t one to sugarcoat or mince his words. When he’s at his best, he’s comfortable saying it. When he isn’t, he won’t shy away from it. In his words when discussing the 2023 postseason, he was content with his own play in the series, but not happy. Overall, he felt he played well, but also believed he could have done more to impact the series.

“I really felt good about it when the series started, I was excited to play,” he said. “I did think I played well and played hard but I would’ve like to have done more. I did my best in every game, there’s some I played really well but I think overall I would like to have done more.”

Now, Doughty’s “B” game is still better than a lot of guys “A” games……a lot of guys. And he had his “A” game at times too in the playoffs. His regular season was terrific, as he cracked 50 points offensively for the first time since the 2017-18 campaign and the fourth time in his professional career. His pairing with Mikey Anderson was as solid as ever and logged the bulk of the most difficult matchups for the majority of the regular season, posting strong underlying metrics to support the eye test.

Against Edmonton, he felt he could have created more offensively throughout the six games. Easier said than done, when your most common opponent was Connor McDavid, but that’s the standard that Doughty holds himself to as the team’s number-one defenseman. He believed his defensive game was where it needed to be but walked away wishing he had done more at the other end.

“I was frustrated with the amount of offense I created in the series, that was probably my flaw, but I was really happy with my defensive game,” he expanded. “I played hard, made big hits, I love playoff hockey, that’s what I’m built for most. Against a team like that, I was frustrated about my offense. Sometimes you just can’t try to create too much when you’re playing against such great players like that, that’s just the bottom line. I think that is the pedigree to winning, is sacrificing something to try to help your team win and I tried to do that. Unfortunately, I just didn’t keep them off the board enough.”

Let’s Go Again
If you ask Doughty, let’s run this thing back next season.

“I want to play Edmonton again,” he said. “We made some adjustments before [Game 6] and we were, I felt, the better team in [Game 6]. I would love to play Edmonton again. That rivalry is just growing and growing and that’s the type of thing we look for. That’s all I’m going to be thinking about all summer is the Edmonton Oilers, losing to them, and getting another chance at them.”

The Oilers aren’t going anywhere as a roadblock in the Pacific Division. With arguably the best two forwards in the NHL, Edmonton will be a perennial playoff team for the foreseeable future and with the current postseason format, the Kings will most likely need to defeat the Oilers to get to where they want to go. Whether it be in Round 1 or Round 2, odds would be that the Kings will need to beat the Oilers in order to advance.

As the above quote makes clear, that’s just fine with Doughty. He knows that Edmonton is improving, but so are the Kings. He believes in his team and the progress he believes they can show, with the talent they have already in the room. The Kings have to play to their best level in order to win that series but Doughty believes they are capable of doing so.

“They’re a good team, Edmonton again this year, they got better, just like we did, but we didn’t perform to the best of our ability in this round, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. There were moments where we did play our best but yeah, I do think we have the talent and the team to get there.”

As he said about his own play, Doughty believed that the Kings as a team still have more to give.

Should they find themselves in that position again next season, there’s another level for this group to reach and Doughty is hopeful to find it.

“We just needed to perform better,” he added. “I still think that we didn’t show our best hockey and that’s why we lost. If we played our best, obviously I hope it would have been different, but I’m really happy with the team we have here. We’re much better than we just showed.”

Goosing Up Gavy
Drew Doughty has, not so subtly, been dropping hints that he’d like Vladislav Gavrikov to remain around with the organization.

He’s felt the fit has been good from the time Gavrikov got here and as Todd McLellan said in his own exit interview, that addition gave the Kings the four, stout defenders they sought in their top four, which allowed others to slot into other roles throughout the lineup, adding depth in the process.

When asked, one last time, what it would take to get Gavrikov to stay, Doughty had a laugh when answering saying he could “give him a million bucks of my contract” as a perk.

All jokes aside, he still expressed confidence that Gavrikov might ultimately re-sign with the Kings. A lot of reasons to do so, as Doughty believes Los Angeles to be one of the most appealing markets in the NHL, for all reasons but one big one, as he noted.

“I know I’m talking to him, I’m trying to convince him, I mean it’s a pretty easy sell,” he said. “We play in a great city here, we have great fans, it’s an easy one. Basically it just comes down to taxes, to be honest, but I think that we’ll hopefully be able to sign him and I think he wants to be here.”

The Kings have some flexibility with the salary cap, but they’re also not as flush with cap space as they have been over the last two summers, which resulted in big, external acquisitions. Now, they have their own free agents to deal with, really for the first time as a playoff team, and Gavrikov is one piece to the puzzle, as is goaltender Joonas Korpisalo. Doughty has been vocal in the past about what he’s wanted the team to do, with hopes of winning another championship with the Kings. He lobbied publicly, one last time, with this season’s deadline acquisitions.

“I think we’ve got a really, really good team in here. I think we did some great things at the deadline there, to get those two players, and hopefully, we can get them re-signed.”

Phillip Danault

Season-Over-Season Growth
“I think we had more expectations towards ourselves this year, that’s for sure. Last year was, not a trial, but we were pushing to make the playoffs and show that we have it in us, which we did. We gained a lot of experience, we talked about having more experience this year, we were stronger as a team mentally, but obviously Edmonton is a really good team and they’re going to be hard every year to go through. We need to fix a couple of things and get better in a couple of areas.”

That was Danault’s opening remark as he assessed the team’s growth, season-over-season. Danault was the most sizeable acquisition two offseasons ago, as he signed a long-term contract with the Kings as a free agent, choosing Los Angeles over other suitors. He was brought in for both his on-ice and off-ice attributes, as an effective, two-way forward but also a character guy and culture guy off the ice. He’s excelled in both areas and believes the team has taken strides, even as he acknowledges it needs to take more of them.

Danault is different than Doughty in how he speaks, but a trait they share is an ability to identify when to say something honestly. You could tell Danault was still upset with the loss, 12 hours later. He wasn’t happy with the outcome and expressed not just a desire, but a need, to do better next season.

“It’s a big motivation for sure,” he said. “Everyone is really pissed and not happy with what happened, as it should be. We want to win. We’re not here just to play casual hockey. You play 82 games, it’s so hard on your body and then you go to the playoffs and lose in the first round, it’s not much fun. We’re going in the right direction and that’s probably the biggest key right now.”

One thing is for certain, though. Danault is confident in the group as assembled and believes that they can push through the barrier moving forward.

“You never want to end it in the first round,” he added. “They’re a good team, but we need to adjust and do some things better. We have the players, that’s for sure. I think we can do it with the players we have here and we can be better.”

Nice Line, v2
Year Two of the Trevor Moore – Phillip Danault – Viktor Arvidsson line.

Arguably the team’s most exciting development during the second half of last season, the trio entered this year as an established commodity, though it experienced its share of setbacks as the 22-23 campaign progressed. Arvidsson entered training camp off of back surgery and he missed a couple games early due to illness, as he worked to get up to speed. Then, just as he found his top gear, it was Moore’s injury, one which cost him multiple months and took time to get back up to speed himself after. Felt like it was basically Game 82 before we saw the full-on version of that line.

“It was kind of hard this year to get our pace going as a line,” Danault said. “We always had somebody new. Trevor was hurt for awhile and he had trouble coming back, but then he came back at the end and played awesome during the playoffs. It was him, so it was really good to see that. It was tough to get our pace as a line this season.”

In the postseason, they were much more themselves.

Despite drawing the McDavid matchup for nearly 60 percent of his minutes at 5-on-5, Danault conceded just one 5-on-5 goal against the Edmonton captain across six games played. In a vacuum, you’d take that every day of the week. Overall in the series, Danault was on the ice for three goals for compared to two against at 5-on-5 and although the Kings made personnel adjustments for Game 6, when the usual line was together in the playoffs they were 2-1 in goals scored and even on scoring chances for versus against.

“I think, personally as a line, my line, we played our game, I think we played our game [in the playoffs],” Danault said. “As a team too, I don’t think we changed our game much. Last year, I felt like I was more shadowing McDavid, but I did it differently this year, which was more fun and more effective that way, just playing our game, keeping the puck more. Last year, I felt like we didn’t have the puck as much and I feel like the puck possession was more in our advantage this year. Although it finished in six, for some reason I felt better.”

Remains to be seen what the makeup looks like of this forward group next season, but all three players are under contract. We’ll see if that line is together off the bat once again, but even if they’re not, there’s a steady base to turn to if called upon.

More to follow, Insiders! Hopeful to have some additional news coming with regard to Kopitar this afternoon. The NHL is set to announce the finalists for both the Frank Selke Trophy and the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy during coverage of tonight’s Round 2 matchups. Kopitar should garner votes towards both trophies and we’ll see if he’s garnered enough to merit a Top-3 selection. The Florida / Toronto series begins at 4 PM Pacific, followed by the Seattle / Dallas series at 6:30 PM. Both games are on ESPN and will have the finalists during intermission segments.

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