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Kings' Anze Kopitar has proved to be a valuable asset

A day after becoming the Kings' first $10-million man, Anze Kopitar packed his own socks in his equipment bag following the team's 3-2 victory over the Ducks at Honda Center. No valets, egos, or pretensions for hockey players.

And for Kopitar, who signed an eight-year, $80-million contract extension on Saturday, there's no escaping jokes about whether he will pick up the check when players gather for a meal. He's fine with that.

"I like these guys," he said with a smile Sunday, "so I'll take them out for dinner."

If there's anyone unlikely to be spoiled by newfound riches it's Kopitar, whose drive to play hockey at its highest level carried him from his native Slovenia to Sweden and on to the NHL, where he was a central figure on the Kings' 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup championship teams.

He's modest. Hard-working. The kind of player teammates respect for reasons beyond performances like he had Sunday, when he contributed an assist on the Kings' second goal and scored what held up as the winner by deflecting a shot between the pads of Ducks goaltender John Gibson.

His teammates have seen him struggle to score but never compromise the defensive excellence that makes him one of the NHL's top two-way centers.

"I think everyone, at least in this room, players are happy for him," longtime teammate Dustin Brown said. "We all feel like he's earned it."

Kopitar's value was equally apparent to center Vincent Lecavalier, who has been Kopitar's teammate for five games.

"I knew he was always a good player, but you really get to know somebody when you play with him. And he's even better when you see him," Lecavalier said. "I mean, how good he is defensively, and offensively he's even better than what I thought.

"He's overall, like, what I call a perfect hockey player. He's that good. He's got great hands and great leadership off the ice as well. That's why he's had two Stanley Cups and has been a leader with this team… He's a really good hockey player."

Good enough to earn an average salary of $10 million starting next season, which will rank him behind only the $10.5-million average salaries of Chicago Blackhawks standouts Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane?

An athlete is worth whatever someone is willing to pay. A No. 1 center in the NHL — especially one such as Kopitar, who has won the Cup more than once and at age 28 could win several more times — is an asset of nearly incalculable value. He won't score 100 points, but that has become nearly unattainable in this era of low scoring. He's on the way to leading the Kings in scoring for the ninth straight season; with 13 goals and 38 points in 44 games he's on pace for 71 points. He's also crucial to their defensive efforts, physical style and strong possession game.

"Whenever you're dealing with the value of these players, you're saying, 'Are you getting value?' " Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi said in a phone conversation Sunday. "That's one part of the equation. The second part is how are you going to replace them?

"How do you replace a No. 1 center? Obviously we think we've got a good team and a chance to win here but the other thing is part of the equation."

The Kings would have a difficult time replacing Kopitar, who has grown up alongside Brown, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick.

"He's been a key cog of our team for 10 years," Brown said. "You take him off the team and we're a dramatically different team."

Kopitar's big salary cap hit will contribute to a serious cap squeeze next season. And looking down the road, the Kings will be paying big bucks to several players who figure to be past their prime in their mid-to-late 30s. But a lot can happen between now and then, and the Kings, who hold a 10-point lead over Arizona atop the Pacific Division, think they can win now and in the immediate future. It's difficult to argue against that.

"I think when you look at how most teams are built, you've got to have strength down the middle. And there's a cost for it," Lombardi said. "We're not the first team to confront that. It's also part of being successful."

A success that is, in part, a result of Kopitar's excellence.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 18, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Kopitar has proved to be a valuable asset - Kings No. 1 center is a worthy recipient of eight-year, $80-million contract extension - KINGS 3, DUCKS 2" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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