“Did he lead it last year too?” longtime teammate Drew Doughty asked. “I thought Phil won it.”
It was imperative for Kopitar to lead the Kings in scoring as they built up to their 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup championships, as they reached their peak, and then to keep them credible through their painful decline. A No. 1 center must carry his team, and Kopitar has done that at an elite level at both ends of the ice. Only Jeff Carter, in 2016-17, has interrupted the Slovenian center’s dominance since a 20-year-old Kopitar succeeded Michael Cammalleri as the team’s scoring leader in 2007-08.
But as the Kings rise again, they’d be better off if Kopitar doesn’t lead them in scoring this season. At minimum they need him to be seriously challenged for supremacy because that will mean they’ve gathered enough skill and scoring depth to contend for the Cup again.
Danault hinted he could be their prime point producer when he scored a career-best 27 goals last season. Kempe more than doubled his career-high to score 35 goals but he’s a shooter and doesn’t pile up assists. Winger Kevin Fiala scored 33 goals and 85 points for Minnesota last season and could match or top that with extensive power play time. Quinton Byfield must prove he can handle a third-line center role before he can become an impact scorer.
Doughty can see Kopitar being pushed. But not passed. “It’s going to be hard to beat Kopi in scoring, ever. He’s our No. 1 guy for all that type of stuff,” Doughty said. “Guys like Fiala or Kempe or Danault maybe have an opportunity to outscore him, but to be honest, I don’t really see it happening. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s 15 of 16.”
Kopitar turned 35 in August, but he thinks the game quickly and doesn’t rely on speed alone. Danault’s arrival allowed coach Todd McLellan to drop Kopitar’s average ice time from 21 minutes 11 seconds to 20:46 last season, though Kopitar still led the Kings’ forwards and ranked third overall behind defensemen Doughty (25:44) and Matt Roy (20:59). He recorded a career-high 71 blocks and attempted 353 shots, his most since 2011-12, and won the Mark Messier Leadership Award.
McLellan said Kopitar, Danault, Byfield and energetic center Blake Lizotte will dictate their playing time this season through their performances. Finding time for all of them would be a good problem to have.
“Kopi is still a high-end player that’s capable of playing high-end minutes on our team or any other team in the league,” McLellan said. “You could drop him on the Stanley Cup champs and they’re going to play him those minutes because he’s a quality player.”
Kopitar, who has been the Kings’ captain since the “C” was awkwardly stripped from Dustin Brown in 2016, was grateful Danault took on some of his workload. But Kopitar isn’t conceding anything to age.
“I feel good, I feel like I’m in good shape and still young enough to log all the minutes,” said Kopitar, who centered Fiala and Kempe during training camp and will skate alongside them to open the season.
“Whoever wins the scoring title, it’s good for me or whoever it’s going to be. But it’s a matter of a team game. That’s what we’ve done in years past and that’s what we have to do. It’s a matter of making sure the team plays the way we need to play to make the playoffs, and then go deep and ultimately go all the way again.”
Signing Danault as a free agent in 2021 was a morale-boosting move by general manager Rob Blake. It told players he recognized they’d made enough progress that investing in a top-six forward made strategic sense; Danault exceeded expectations and played a vital role in their return to the playoffs.
By acquiring Fiala and quickly signing him to a seven-year, $55.1-million contract Blake told players that they deserved to have another asset who could help them go beyond one playoff round next time.
“The feeling’s good, obviously,” Kopitar said. “I think it was a big step last year, especially with all the injuries that went through this locker room throughout the season, and a much-needed gaining of experience. Because playing in a Game 7 it’s a different type of deal, versus being a 4-1 series [loss] or 4-0. The majority of young guys who hadn’t experienced that, they now know how it feels like and what to expect.”
Brown’s retirement leaves Kopitar, Doughty and goaltender Jonathan Quick as the only holdovers from the Cup-winning teams. Doughty is signed through 2026-27 but Quick is in the final season of his contract and Kopitar is signed through 2023-24. The window for them to win together is narrowing.
It’s not shut, but there’s some urgency. “I really do think before the three of us retire we’ll have one more Cup in us, at least,” Doughty said.
It’s not impossible. But for it to happen soon, Kopitar must be his old self and his younger teammates must make a good run at taking the team scoring crown from him.
“We’re on, I guess, maybe the old side of things right now but between me, Quickie and Drew, I think we still have quite a bit left,” Kopitar said.
“With the young guys developing as fast and as good as they did, I think it’s most definitely an opportunity to win again.”