Anze Kopitar should be a 100-point scorer.
He has shown he’s capable of dominating games and carrying the Kings on his shoulders. At a solid 6 feet 3 and 225 pounds he can create room for himself and his linemates while making world-class plays at top speed.
He’s also capable of plunging into bottomless ruts.
He had 32 points in the Kings’ first 22 games last season, but after linemate Ryan Smyth suffered a rib injury Kopitar disappeared, scoring two goals and eight points in his next 20 games. He led the Kings in scoring for the third straight season — the first player to do that since Wayne Gretzky — but with 81 points in 82 games.
The 23-year-old Slovenian is repeating that pattern this season. Playing with an ever-changing cast of wingers he had a decent start and raised his game in early December, when he collected six goals and 10 points in his first six games. But he faded again, going nine games without a goal before scoring Saturday. He was blanked in his next two games, both losses.
Two factors stand between Kopitar and a 100-point season.
One — and this can’t be overstated — is the Kings’ lack of a skillful and imaginative left wing for him to play off.
“I think we’ve got to get him the puck a lot more,” Coach Terry Murray said. “He’s a shooter. He can score goals. There’s no question. He’s got a powerful shot when we see it. And he’s getting it into those prime scoring areas. That’s going to be up to us to get him that kind of player who’s going to be a creative guy.”
The Kings’ pursuit of free-agent left wing Ilya Kovalchuk was a failure, which is no tragedy in itself, but General Manager Dean Lombardi hasn’t been able to acquire a winger who could come close to Kopitar’s skill level. The result: Murray’s fill-it-by-committee approach.
“I just keep looking for that player to fit in with Kopitar. That’s probably the place I’m looking all of the time, what can I get here that’s really going to make that line have good chemistry, good feel, very effective on a consistent basis,” Murray said Wednesday. “And that’s why I do what I do.”
No matter what Lombardi and Murray do, Kopitar might never become a classic No. 1, franchise-toting center if he can’t overcome the barrier in his mind.
Although he was named to the All-Star team and has the physical requisites to be an elite center, he lacks the consistency to be rated in that category, and he knows it.
“It’s just long slumps. It’s hard to say why they happen. I wish I knew. I’d break out of those things,” said Kopitar, who has 16 goals and a team-leading 47 points in 46 games.
“Sometimes your confidence gets low and you’re squeezing the stick a little too tight and other times points come I’m not going to say easy, but those second assists, they’re not the hardest to make.
“I guess it all evens out, but at the same time I definitely have one more step in me.”
The time for him to take that step is now, with the Kings’ season in the balance.
After losing six of eight games on a homestand, they lost two more on the road and return home to face Phoenix on Thursday with nine losses in their last 11 games.
“He’s got that great potential. His size, his strength, his ability. All that together shows what he can produce on the ice,” Smyth said. “You turn potential into results by staying consistent from game to game, not only offensively but defensively too. You have to be a complete player, and he is that.”
That wasn’t always true of Kopitar, drafted 11th by the Kings in 2005.
Like most young players, he favored offense over defense and scored 20 goals and 61 points as a rookie in 2006-07. He collected 32 goals and a team-high 77 points the next following season but slid to 27 goals and 66 points in 2008-09, Murray’s first season.
Kopitar needed time to adjust to Murray’s defense-oriented philosophy but eventually became a convert.
“At first, you don’t really know what he’s talking about,” said Kopitar, who has played 301 consecutive games, 23 from Marcel Dionne’s club record. “You think you’re doing a good job and you look at your plus/minus … being in the minus, it’s not a good feeling.
“I take a lot of pride especially now in the defensive zone, where the game is so tight and so important. I totally get what he was saying.”
Although shifting his focus to defense has compromised his production, Kopitar is now responsible enough to play on the penalty-killing unit and duel opponents’ top centers. With an average ice time of 21 minutes and 27 seconds he’s in the top 10 among NHL forwards.
“I see a player that plays hard on both ends of the rink and I didn’t see that in the early going,” Murray said. “The play without the puck is a hard and demanding thing. That’s the pride part of your game and if you don’t know that, you have to figure it out and learn how to do it.”
If Kopitar can learn that, he can learn to be consistent and realize his potential. He’s on pace for 84 points, which he said would be enough if the Kings make the playoffs. “That’s our team goal and everything you work for,” he said. “If that’s not accomplished I don’t think anything else matters too much.”
He — and they — should aim higher than that. Much higher.