Honoring the past while still in the present—that’s what the Kings did Wednesday night as present-day captain, Anze Kopitar, was feted in a brief ceremony before the team’s game versus Buffalo. He returned the favor by going straight out and scoring the game’s first goal, his 15th of the year and 408th career goal.
Why the recognition? Because as the first part of the season has elapsed, Kopitar has surpassed a number of team records on his march to an eventual place in the pantheon of Kings’ greats whose sweaters are retired.
Who are they? Rogie Vachon (#30), Marcel Dionne (#16), Dave Taylor (#18), Luc Robitaille (#20), Wayne Gretzky (#99), Rob Blake (#4), and Dustin Brown (#23). Kopitar wears #11. He was drafted by Dave Taylor and his staff in the eleventh spot of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft after growing up in Jesenice, Slovenia.
Who better to talk to about the long-tenured captain of the team but a former captain and holder of that aforementioned #18 sweater, Dave Taylor? Taylor was Kings General Manager and was responsible for drafting Kopitar in 2005.
Inside Hockey grabbed an exclusive interview with the superstar, a chat which illuminates Kopitar’s early days with the team and his present qualities of leadership amongst other topics.
IH: What did you know about Kopitar before you drafted him?
I didn’t see him until he played in the World Championships as a 17-year-old. He was a real good two-way forward. Aside from [the Kings] scouting him with the Slovenian National Team, he also played in Sweden, both at the Junior level and some games with the men’s team, so we had a lot of views on him. The Kings’ scouts were really impressed when they saw him with the national team. At a very young age, he was already a pro, and he was the best player on their team.
IH: How was it that he was still there past tenth overall in that draft?
We took him at 11, and the fact that he was from Slovenia, and there were some questions in the scouting fraternity about his skating, but we didn’t see any issues with it. He was third on our list, and with all the publications, and Al Murray, who ran the amateur draft for us, had a conversation with Bob McKenzie, who had a lot of information on the draft, and Bob thought it would be possible that he’d still be there at 11, and he was.
IH: What impressed you about him as a youngster?
When we talked to him at the combine, he’s probably the best interview that I remember sitting in on in 25 years of being on this side of the business. He’s 17 years old, and he’s a big, powerful kid, got big wrists. What’s also impressive is that his English was impeccable. He grew up in a hockey family. His dad was a coach, so he’d been around the game forever. He had such a calm demeanor, speaking about the game, very knowledgeable. He just really looked like a pro when he was 17 years old, and he sounded like a pro. He knew about the NHL, and I think his dream was to play in the NHL. I’ve heard through different interviews where I’ve seen him that he worked through his grandmother to learn to speak English because he hoped to play over here in the National Hockey League one day.
IH: He has obviously proved you right to take him that high…
He has been a great player. He’s a two-way player, and he’s big and strong, and I know when we drafted him, we felt he could play against Getzlaf and Perry in Anaheim, and the Sedins [in Vancouver], and play against Joe Thornton up in San Jose, a big center that could play against anyone, really. He’s got an excellent two-way game. He’s easy to play with because he’s always in position, and he looks after the details on the ice. He’s almost [perfect]. If you want to build a player, you want size and strength. You want someone who can skate, handle the puck, make plays and score. He does it all.
IH: Tell us about his early development.
When we drafted him, we talked about having him come over right away, at 18, and he said to me, ‘You know, I think I should play one more year in Sweden, and play more against the men. The following year, I’ll be ready to play in the NHL.’ So he came over as a 19-year-old, and he stepped in and I think he had maybe 61 points his first year in the NHL. For a 19-year-old, his size and strength was amazing.
IH: What comparables can you think of?
For me, he’s built like a taller Brett Hull. He’s got that thick body, and power, and when he skates, he’s got a lot of power. He just drove the net there for the first goal [against Buffalo on Wednesday night. He doesn’t look like he’s moving too fast, but he’s got good speed and power.
IH: How has his play on the Kings paralleled yours when you were with the team and on the Triple Crown Line with Charlie Simmer and Marcel Dionne?
He and [Dustin] Brown played together for a long time. The era I played there was the French Connection, the Islander line with Bossy and Gillies, Montreal had some great lines, but then coaches went to a center with a wing, two good players and a complement player with them. So Kopi and Brownie played together for a lot of Brownie’s career, and lately Adrian Kempe has been on the right wing. He was a centerman for his first three or four years with the Kings. He was more of a third-line guy, so they moved him up on the first line, and I think it really benefits him, because he can skate and shoot, and he doesn’t have to do the heavy lifting. Kopitar can do that, and now Kempe’s free to score goals and go down the wing. They also play together on the penalty kill, and they have really good chemistry there as well.
IH: What do you think Kopitar’s reputation is around the League?
Kopi has won a couple of Selke trophies, so he certainly gets recognition. I don’t think he’s had a 100-point season, but he’s pretty consistent somewhere in the 65-to-90-something [points], so he’s always in that same area. I think one year, maybe his third or fourth year here, he broke his ankle just before the playoffs, and the Kings went out in the first round, but other than that, he’s been incredibly durable. He plays a lot of minutes; he plays in all situations; and thirty-seven years old now, and he’s still going strong.
IH: What about his part in Kings’ history?
With the salary cap and the pressures they have, it really doesn’t happen that often that a player stays with the same team. He and Brownie were both able to do it here, and Doughty.
IH: You were a Kings captain, and now he is. What kind of responsibility is that, and who helps you grow into the role?
When I came to the Kings, Mike Murphy was the captain, and he helped me out, in a whole lot of areas. I was a right winger, and he was a right winger, and I patterned myself after Murph, and I think captains lead by example. Kopi, there are no off-ice issues with him over the years. He comes to the rink to play; he comes to practice every day; he’s just a pro. Players come in and they see that, and that’s a model for them. He’s been great for the Kings, and they’ve had this kind of model for 18 years not, going on 19 and 20. Dustin Brown was the same. He came to play every night. I would say with Kopi, he’s one of those players who makes everyone around him better.
IH: Would they have won those two Stanley Cups without him?
No [chuckles]. We take a lot of pride because we drafted him, and the staff we had, many years ago, when we look at the Kings’ Stanley Cup team, we think there’s four pillars, and it’s number one center, Kopi; number one defenseman is Doughty; number one winger, Dustin Brown; and number one goalie, Jonathan Quick, and we drafted three of the four, so we feel lots of pride about this.
IH: Will Kopitar be amongst the pantheon of Kings’ greats when he retires?
I think his number  will be up there [in the rafters], and I think Jonathan Quick’s number will be up there. Yup.
Kopitar now leads all Kings in assists and games played and is the scorer of more than 400 NHL regular-season goals. He has won the Lady Byng trophy twice, the Selke twice, and the Stanley Cup twice.