The Slovenian Sport: Anze Kopitar of the LA Kings Is Freakishly Good

Scott WeldonCorrespondent INovember 11, 2009

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 05:  Anze Kopitar #11 of the Los Angeles Kings starts a rush with Jack Johnson #3 against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the game at the Staples Center on November 5, 2009 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

Now, if you ask me who the leading scorer in the NHL is right now, I'd guess Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby. I might think Evgeny Malkin or Pavel Datsyuk. There's an outside shot it's Zach Parise or Henrik Zetterburg. You ask me where he's from, and there's no way I'm saying Slovenia.

Honestly, Slovenia sounds like a made up country. Isn't that where Boris and Natasha from the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon came from? My geographical ignorance isn't completely unfounded. This country is so new the CIA world fact book gives me a map, a flag, and nothing else. Oh and the capital is Ljubljana. But we all knew that.

Slovenia, with its two million people and one thousand registered hockey players and one tiny port on the Adriatic (Koper), was once an integral part of Yugoslavia. For the last 19 years, it has been it's own independent republic.

That's right, the NHL scoring leader is actually older then the country he comes from. How's that for a Zen koan that'll keep you meditating on the meaning of life?

Anze Kopitar was effectively identified, scouted, assessed and drafted despite the fact that he played mostly in Slovenian hockey leagues. When he was drafted by LA he basically had a year of play in the Swedish junior league under his belt.

He'd also played 15 games as a 17 year old in the Swedish Elite league, regular season and playoffs, but he hadn't scored a point.

NHL scouts in general and the LA Kings specifically liked what they saw anyway. They saw a big fast talented kid who managed to dominate in every league he moved up into. He seemed physical enough that the common fear he wouldn't be able to handle the punishment in the NHL didn't surface.

He was ranked as the top player coming out of Europe that year and as high as the fifth best player in a very talent rich NHL entry draft pool (2005).

The evaluation of Kopitar was bang on. This seeking out of high quality hockey talent in Slovenia has to be analogous to major league baseball finding an all-star shortstop in Iceland. This discovery of great hockey talent in an obscure hockey backwater has to be reassuring for Bob Sirois. 

His fear that Quebec hockey talented is being ignored and passed over by the NHL is likely to prove groundless. If Anze Kopitar can be found hiding in the northwest corner of the former Yugoslavia you can be sure that the home of Mario Lemieux, Rocket Richard, Jean Beliveau and Gilbert Perreault is gone over with a fine tooth comb. 

The talent-starved NHL is weighing every baby born in quebec and trying them on skates at three just to be sure. If a kid from La Belle Province doesn't make the NHL there's probably a good reason, but it's not lack of exposure to scouting or a chance to play the game.

Anze Kopitar slipped a bit in the Crosby draft. He was eventually taken 11th not 58th where he was ranked. 

Despite the fact that the 2005 draft has so far produced NHLers Bobby Ryan, Jack Johnson, Devin Setoguchi, Marc Staal, Marc-Eduoard Vlasic, Martin Hanzal, TJ Oshie, Paul Stasny, Ondrej Pavelec, Tuuka Rask, Kris Letang, Keith Yandle, Jonathon Quick, Jared Boll, Darren Helm, Kris Russell, Mason Raymond, Andrew Cogliano, and Carey Price among others, I'm going to have to say Kopitar looks like the second or third best player to be drafted that year.

Los Angeles at the time already had two blue chip prospects at forward. Alex Frolov and Mike Cammalleri had starred for their respective hockey nations (Canada and Russia)at the world junior tournament in 2002. Cammalleri lead the tournament in scoring. Frolov lead his team back to victory in the gold medal game against Canada.

After they fell behind 3-1 in the second period Frolov and the Russians eventually won 5-4. It was obvious that the two best players in this tournament between the best under-20 hockey players in the world were future LA Kings.

It might have seemed redundant then to pick another offensively talented forward when a Vlasic, Staal or Rask were available. Thank goodness they did. LA has since traded Mike Cammalleri for a draft pick and Alexander Frolov has suffered through periods of seeming disinterest that have culminated in a Kovalev-like healthy scratch this year.

Kopitar since he was drafted spent one season in the Swedish elite league and then came unerringly to the NHL. He started like he belonged no where else. His big body (6'4", 220lbs) and speed have made him difficult to contain and his talent have allowed him to score like few others.

He hasn't spent a minute in the minors. He had 20 goals and 61 points as a rookie. He didn't make the top ten of hockeyfutures.com preseason poll of likely Calder Trophy winners perhaps because they didn't think he'd make the team.

The three nominees that year turned out to be Paul Stasny (g28 a50 pts78), Evgeny Malkin (g33 a 52 pts 85) and Jordan Staal (g 29 a 13 pts 42). Kopitar was everyone's fourth choice but he was already an NHL regular and a good one.

His next two years Kopitar played full seasons flirting with a point a game in 2007/08 (77pts in 82 games). There was a drop-off last year after Cammalleri was traded away.

Now however on a new line with Ryan Smyth and Justin Williams, Kopitar has already experienced the first fifth of a breakout season. He is leading the entire league again in scoring. However it's not the junior or senior Slovenian league, it's not even the Swedish junior league.

Anze Kopitar is leading the NHL in scoring. Despite the lack of anything resembling an NHL pedigree his 28 pts in eighteen games have him on pace to score over 125 points this year.

He has helped rejuvenate a moribund LA King offense (third worst in the league last year). They are currently the third highest scoring team in the league. They're threatening, though it's early days yet, to take a playoff spot. It's been an amazing trip for a kid from Jesenice.

His talent and drive are leading him to the top in the NHL. Is he going to be able to take the Kings with him? Time will tell.              


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