Kopitar Must Play Offense

If armies tend to fight last year’s war, then it might also be true that coaches repeat last year’s mistakes, only in new form. Most of them are smart enough, after all, not to repeat exactly the same gaffe which got them in trouble last season.

For Terry Murray of the Kings, the mistake last year was to overplay his starting goalie, Jonathan Quick. Every time it looked like Quick needed a rest, he’d be in there just once more. By the end of the regular season, he had burned out, though he had a good playoffs.

This year, Murray’s error is on fixating on the need for a left winger to complement the scoring skills of Anze Kopitar, the team’s leading offense-getter with 47 points (but just 16 goals) in the team’s first 47 games. This puts him on pace, neatly, for 82, which would put him a point ahead of his last year’s 81 point season, which is his career high.

So desperate is the need, in the coach’s mind, that he has experimented endlessly with line combinations this season, even switching captain Dustin Brown to left wing to fill out a lineup that lacks enough depth at the position.

The trouble is, nothing has worked, and the guy expected to produce has been slumping, with just one goal in the last 16 games dating back more than a month. With him goes the team, now having lost 10 of 12.

In the face of this, Murray has said in the press again that it would be great if the team could get him someone who could feed him the puck so that he can use his shot to score. But since management has not been able to find such a player, the coach has taken it upon himself to remedy the situation, as he should do.

Thursday night in a losing effort against Phoenix this took the form of Murray sitting his $3-plus million dollar acquisition, Alexei Ponikarovsky, who had been on the first line with Kopitar and Dustin Brown, and bringing in a guy from Manchester, Andrei Loktionov, who was doing well with the Monarchs, getting a point a game. He played Loktionov with Brown and Kopitar, to no effect, as the team lost, 2-0.

Murray justified his decision to play the twenty year-old by explaining how well Loktionov played: “Real good. I really liked Loktionov’s game,” he said. “On the first power plays, he was able to make, uh, to hold onto the puck under extreme pressure, pressure to buy some time, to settle things out, and now, make some plays in the offensive zone. I thought he was very good, and he was very good five-on-five. He’s moving the puck; he’s moving his feet very well. It was a great impression for him tonight.”

In fact, Murray’s confidence in the kid was displayed on the stat sheet, with his ice time at 16:30 and his power play time at about six minutes, just a few seconds off that of Kopitar.

What’s wrong with that? At least three times, Loktionov made the wrong decision with the puck and cost his team zone time. The first and second mistakes, on separate power plays, were to throw the puck from the left boards around behind the net to nobody, allowing Phoenix to clear the zone. Should he know better? Of course not—he just got in town a day ago!

At even strength, the youngster once camped in the middle of the zone, forcing Kopitar to chase the puck to the left wing. The result was that Phoenix cleared the zone by beating him to it.

And despite his coach’s praise, and the player’s plentiful minutes, Loktionov’s numbers were so-so. He had one shot, one blocked shot, and one missed shot.  The Kings had 36 shots on the night, so his one was low by the standards of his minutes played.

But this isn’t about him. The point here, rather, is that the coach has created this situation through failing to see the obvious, which is that rather than worrying about finding Kopitar a winger, and instead of burdening him with his need to keep his defense solid, he should just let him play.

It’s really quite simple: Kopitar needs to play offense first and foremost. It would be great if the team could find him a guy to help, but Murray needs to deal with the lineup he has. He made a point of saying last year, and he has repeated it this season, that he admires Kopitar for having learned the defensive side of the game. Kopitar, in turn, has been quoted in the media as saying that he prides himself on the defensive play he now exhibits.

That’s totally missing the point of his existence on this team.

There are five other guys out there whenever Kopitar is on the ice who can play defense. Two of them are called, in fact, “defensemen.” One is the goaltender, and he’s unlikely to score. The other two are wingers, whoever they might be, who can get back and help out defensively if need be.

Kopitar needs the chain that has him concentrating on his two-way game to be broken. He needs to think one thing and one only: “When I’m on the ice, I need to figure out how to put the puck in the net.” He doesn’t need to think about whether he’s going to be able to get back in time should his shot go wide, or be cleared after the rebound. He needs to focus on what he can do to score.  Would a creative playmaker help?  Duh. But that player is not forthcoming, either from outside the organization nor, apparently, from within, so forget it. Murray needs to focus on what is, in the here and now.

Kopitar had four shots against Phoenix netminder Ilya Bryzgalov Thursday, none productive of anything. In fact, a lot of Kings’ shots went right into the Russian’s gut, not dangerous at all, and not from in close. No rebounds of any consequence were produced. Why? Everyone’s worried about making a mistake.  Nobody’s got that all-out offensive mindset.

But again, it starts with the main horse, and on this team, that’s Kopitar.

Who’s going to teach him this?  Not Murray, it appears. And not any of the other coaches behind the LA bench. But someone’s got to, to get the team fired up about their season, or it’s going to be curtains in early April, and a major setback for the team’s rebuilding program, which seemed to rosy at the beginning of the season.

Veteran Justin Williams said after Thursday’s game that the time for meetings and talking is over, and that it’s time for people, him included, to do their talking on the ice.

“We’re going to come out of this and we’re going to be stronger,” he said. “We’ve just got to do it before it’s too late. Leadership is grabbing a team, and giving inspiration.  We’ve had a couple of good games recently, but we’ve got to find that line to get hot, to get us over the hump…

“You’re not going to find a guy in here that will say, ‘Oh, we need a first-line left-winger,” he added about Kopitar and the team’s need at left wing. “No one in here’s going to say that. We have the ability, we have the personnel in here to break through. When you hit a funk, a lot of questions start to be asked.”

Kopitar can’t be blamed for the team’s slump, nor is he yet at the place in his career that his leadership qualities are his main contribution to the Kings’ success.Rather, he needs simply to play, to, if you like Williams’ idea, do his talking with his stick. But he’s not going to do that if he spends his time thinking about a two-way game, nor is the team going to succeed if their coach spends all his time conniving to fix the problem that his coaching has created by emphasizing defense and demanding shots without contextualizing that demand to mean real, potent, chances.

This system, which has been labeled by Murray as having a “shot mentality,” is failing at this point in the season. The change needed is to have at least one guy going hard to the net with the puck and firing it from meaningful, in-close range in an effort focused on nothing else but scoring, and only a couple of guys on this team have that ability. Kopitar is one, Williams another.

The next chance to remedy the problem is Saturday back in Phoenix.

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