The big news in LA, the news that trumps all other news: we finally have a football team. Wait. This is Inside Hockey, so you probably don’t care about that. Me neither.
No, it was this: number 11 is now and likely forever will be an LA King. You know the guy—the monster power forward who began his career blowing around Chris Pronger in Anaheim and has continued it by recording 230 goals in 725 NHL games while, most nights, also playing a game so complete that he surely should have won a Frank Selke award or two by now. West coast teams, as those of us out here know, though, don’t get looked at enough for the kind of excellence it takes to win this award to be seen.
To put it another way: there’s no measure for how many points Kopitar has kept other teams’ best players from scoring. And there’s no measure (other than Corsi-type stuff) that tells you how often he dominates on the boards or keeps the puck all to himself for the duration of a shift.
But now that skill has a dollar value, and it’s around $80 million. That’s a lot of Euro, the currency that his home country now uses. Before that, it was the Koruna, or Crown, which is entirely fitting for someone who ended up playing for the team that calls themselves the Kings.
So how does he react knowing that over the next 10 years, he will likely play 800 more hockey games and make $100,000 US bucks per game?
By playing even more energetically than usual. Two examples from LA’s Saturday afternoon tilt against Ottawa will suffice:
In period one, Kopitar held the puck the whole way down the ice and through the defense. Nothing resulted. In period two, he came to the net and made a backwards poke to free up the puck and put him behind the defense. It was unusual in that he often gets within half a step of breaking free but doesn’t manage the whole trick.
Sadly, he later reverted to his usual, somewhat cautious self. As period two wound down, he got the puck in front of the net on a rebound and could have/should have shot immediately into the open side. He double clutched it, though, and the goalie made a somewhat routine save. Kopitar leaned on his stick in regret as the puck rolled on the rebound into the corner.
And what about the LA team itself? Sometimes, it’s hard to watch them play. Their defensive excellence is such that it renders their games boring. It might work, but it’s not fun to watch necessarily. Saturday was shaping up to be the same, with the midway point seeing the game at 2-0 and the Kings up in shots 19-9.
Wait. That’s not boring. And indeed, it wasn’t. The Kings scored first when they were on a delayed penalty call near the end of period one. The puck was shanked from the point by Toffoli and went straight to Jeff Carter at the left of the net. He whipped a wrister over the Senators’ Anderson.
The second period saw the LA team on the power play. Vinny Lecavalier found himself in front of the net when the puck went off the skate of Carter to the slot. Lecavalier reached out and got it, lifting it over the goalie and just under the bar.
Call that a goal-scorer’s goal. Most guys on the third or fourth lines would have put it right into the goalie’s equipment, not being able to take the split second to open the angle of their hands so that the stick blade was sufficiently under the puck to loft it.
After scoring, Lecavalier had the most genuine, biggest grin I’ve seen on an NHL player’s face for a long time. In fact, it’s the first one since April Fool’s Day of 2015, when he got once versus Pittsburgh while with Philly.
Short note on him: he came here a refugee, and from what I read, fans in Pennsylvania were glad to see his back. He’s on the Kings’ third line with Lewis and Gaborik. But he doesn’t look used up. He looks like a guy who knows where to go and isn’t afraid to go to the net. Seeing him in the locker room, too, suggests a guy whose fitness is outstanding and whose face doesn’t look marked by either the savagery or the stresses of playing a lot of years of hockey.
The Senators got a goal back when the puck bounced off of Luke Schenn and then Christian Ehrhoff made a giveaway and Alex Chiasson scored. They almost backed it up with another right after when Zibanejad got right in on Quick, but the puck went off the post and bounded through the crease. Period two ended 2-1.
The third saw Ottawa in the position to do what the cliché-ists love to call “play the perfect road game.” In the weeds, down a goal, they tried to strike early when the Kings were defending the last part of a Jordan Nolan penalty. They couldn’t convert, and the Kings got another goal shortly thereafter.
It was the perfect play to highlight exactly what three of their players do the best. Kopitar recognized that he could chip the puck ahead to Lucic breaking out of the zone. Lucic ragged it up the ice and then towards the boards. He outdueled a guy there and tossed a flat pass across the crease. Toffoli got there at the perfect moment to redirect it into the wide open right side of the cage.
Things then fell apart for the Kings, fast. A shot came from the point and Schenn, confused as to where it was going, turned around in the crease, leaving the rebound to go across from Zibanejad to Ryan, who popped it in. That was at 8:08.
At 8:34, Pageau chased Muzzin into the zone, and when the latter tried to clear the puck, Pageau just shot it right as it came off Muzzin’s stick, and bang! Tie game, with Quick as surprised as anyone.
Half a period left saw the tie game sitting at 30 shots for LA, 18 for Ottawa. Next, the Kings’ Nick Shore was in the Ottawa zone and clipped Shane Prince, earning himself four minutes. Oh gee. At least there was some action, though. Love the Kings or not, as I said earlier, that style of grind it out is really hard to embrace.
But so is a game where they play what their coach later described as “shinny out there” and they lose. But that’s what LA did. They allowed Ottawa to score on the Shore power play, then saw about the longest empty net goal in the history of hockey. It went around behind the Ottawa net, riding on the boards up high. Someone at the opposite hashmarks ducked his head, and the puck sailed on over and all the way down into the LA net. That made it 5-3, with 16 seconds to go.
After the game, Kopitar spoke about his deal, and Sutter talked about what a disappointment the game had been. “I think we were lucky to ever have the lead. We just, we just had lots of guys just playing shinny out there.” He later added, “We’ve been playing sloppy for quite a few games now. Fatigue is an excuse the last three or four games, and I think our, we didn’t get much from top to bottom today.”
But they haven’t played since Monday. When asked about whether they’ve had too much time off, Sutter said, “I’d rather play just one a week, like the NFL, if we could win it. That would be my preference.” OK.
Then when asked about Lecavalier’s goal, he said, “It was a power play goal. I don’t know if the line did anything five-on-five at all.” Mr. Negative continued, “Usually you get your nose rubbed in it. It’s going to happen once in a while,” when asked how you fix a team which is sloppy. He added something indecipherable about being on the “wrong side of the fence.” Farming metaphor?
He also refused to talk about Anaheim, saying he hasn’t seen much of them and doesn’t know much about the team this year. “Don’t watch them much, haven’t seen them play, so I couldn’t tell you much about them.” Sure. He’d better figure it out fast. The Kings play the Ducks at 6pm Sunday.
Sutter’s only happy moment was when he said about Kopitar, “His best years are in front of him. . . . Everybody’s looking forward to the next part with him.” About the money he said, “It’s a lot,” but “he’s worth every penny of it. You win championships with players like that, it’s very clear. He’s worth every penny.” He later added that “they get more in one check than what we used to get for a whole year [season].”
Just buy my books, alright? You’ll learn something. Start with Growing Up Hockey.