The Kings needed a new coach after Darryl Sutter had become more irritating to players than inspiring, and John Stevens was familiar but fresh and ready to move up from associate head coach to the top job.
The Kings needed to improve their anemic goal production and invigorate their offense to compete with faster teams, and Stevens got the job in large part because of his plans for the offense to attack with pace and speed down the middle of the ice and get the puck to dangerous scoring areas.
All of which sounds good. But what the Kings need more than new offensive tactics is the return of the old Anze Kopitar, the one who commanded both ends of the ice and led them in scoring for nine straight seasons. Without the return of his old playmaking ability and his willingness to unleash his fine wrist shot more often they’ll have a difficult time transforming their new ideas into wins and a playoff spot.
Worn down by playing Olympic qualifying games for his native Slovenia and World Cup duty for Team Europe before the NHL season, he labored and produced only 12 goals and 52 points. That was his lowest total in a non-lockout season and placed him second to Jeff Carter (66 points) in team scoring. “Honestly I don’t know how to really explain it. It just wasn’t my year really. Nothing literally went my way,” Kopitar said Wednesday after the Kings’ first on-ice session of training camp.
“Playing I think it was 20 games and a lot of traveling before that took a toll on me for sure, but I didn’t want to use that as an excuse because I hold myself to higher standards and higher expectations and I’m confident that I’m going to have a better year this year.”
Kopitar, who turned 30 in August, said he had “some sprains and wears and tears” at about the midway point of last season but acknowledged that other World Cup participants had similar woes. And it wasn’t lost on hockey observers — or on him — that his worst season coincided with his first as the Kings’ captain and his first under an eight-year, $80-million contract.
“It definitely didn’t look great. I get that. And nobody was stressed out about it more than I was,” he said. “It’s not like I didn’t care and went about my business like usual. Obviously I care. I care about the team, I care about my teammates, and I want to win. I don’t just want to be here and kind of put in my time. I want to win here and that’s the bottom line.”
Right wing Dustin Brown, who had the captain’s “C” yanked away from him in the summer of 2016 but was gracious in supporting Kopitar as his successor, saw his friend and frequent linemate’s frustration grow throughout the season. “We talked a lot, just about the responsibilities of everything and trying to handle the pressure and just try to help him through it,” Brown said. “Sometimes it’s not the easiest. You can get into a spot where it’s not fun to play hockey, in a way.
“People will probably look at that comment and say, ‘Well, you get to play hockey for a living.’ We understand that. But it’s a different thing when things aren’t going well to pull yourself out. Last year was a tough year for him.”
Soon after Stevens took over as coach, he called Kopitar and they met for coffee. They talked about last season but also looked ahead to what both expect will be better times. “He felt like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders last year with everything and I think that anxiety with all the things he was dealing with probably took a lot of energy out of his game as well,” Stevens said.
Stevens also wanted Kopitar to become more fit. Kopitar averaged 50.4 seconds per shift last season but Stevens wants to cut that to the mid-40s, with the aim of producing shorter but more explosively quick shifts. “We’re counting on him to be the 200-foot player he always is,” Stevens said, “but obviously we’re going to count on him for some offensive production. I think the whole fitness part of it was huge and I think dealing with everything last year, I’m hoping it makes him stronger this year because I think he’s in a better place emotionally.”
Brown also expects Kopitar to leave last season’s struggles behind. “If you have a year like that, quite honestly, you learn more than you do from a year when you score 75 [points] and things are going perfect,” Brown said. “You don’t learn very much when you’re successful, unfortunately.”
In missing the playoffs for the second time in three seasons, the Kings learned that they needed a new coach and a new system — and the reappearance of the old, dominant Kopitar.