EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — An uneasy fall turned into an unsettled winter, a spring without the Stanley Cup Playoffs and a management and coaching change for the Los Angeles Kings.
Their captain, center Anze Kopitar, had never experienced such a prolonged personal struggle on the ice, at any age. It stung when the Kings missed the playoffs for the second time in the past three seasons.
“I had periods, at a time, where it didn’t go [right],” said Kopitar, who turned 30 on Aug. 24. “It’s not even close to having a full season like that. It’s different and you get to know yourself and you see what you’ve got to do. I definitely learned from it.
“Once you go in the wrong direction, it’s really tough to stop it first and then get going again. I don’t think my start was all that poor. It wasn’t great but it wasn’t a complete disaster. After a while the pucks weren’t going where I wanted them to go, and you start thinking about it.”
Kopitar was speaking Tuesday at the Kings practice facility, a day before they were to hit the ice for the start of training camp. Even a two-time Stanley Cup champion (2012, 2014) and Selke Trophy winner (2016) can go through a crisis of confidence; last season, he didn’t score his fourth goal until Jan. 9 and never really ignited for a sustained stretch.
“I’ve got to be better,” said Kopitar, who signed an eight-year, $80 million contract, with an average annual value of $10 million, to remain with Los Angeles on Jan. 16, 2016. “I’ve got to look at myself first, because I want to play better and I’ve got the confidence that I can get back on the level that I expect myself to be and everybody around me expects me to be on.”
Last season, his first season as Kings captain, Kopitar had 52 points (12 goals, 40 assists) in 76 games, his fewest points in a full season since entering the NHL in 2006-07. It was the first time in 10 seasons he did not lead the Kings in scoring, giving way to center Jeff Carter, who had 66 points (32 goals, 34 assists) in 82 games.
However, there a noticeable air of optimism around the Kings headquarters after an offseason of change. Longtime general manager Dean Lombardi and coach Darryl Sutter were fired in April after Los Angeles went 39-35-8 and were replaced by Rob Blake as GM and John Stevens as coach. Kings defenseman Drew Doughty has noticed a visibly upbeat atmosphere around his teammates and staff.
“I’ve never seen so much excitement around the rink,” Doughty said. “Everyone is walking around smiling. I know it’s early and it’s camp. The real work hasn’t begun yet, but it’s just a new feeling around the team and it feels good.”
There is excitement, too, about the potential of more offensive freedom. The Kings won’t be straying wildly from the defensive tenets that won two Stanley Cup championships. They want to open it up, looking to improve their average of 2.43 goals per game, tied for 24th in the NHL last season.
“We always pride ourselves on being a good defensive team,” Kopitar said. “We’re not going to change that. We want to kind of bring more freedom into our game when the guys aren’t scared to make plays.
“Let’s face it, there are 30 [other] teams in the league that are pretty good, and they’re going to make good plays, too. We can’t be afraid to mishandle a puck or something in trying to make a good play, because we have the confidence that our defense is good.
“We have a world-class goaltender [Jonathan Quick]. Sometimes we don’t want to rely on it, but sometimes that’s going to have to bail us out. But again, we’re not going to trade chances. We’re not going to run and gun. But we just want to be a little bit more creative and a little bit more confident in our ability to make plays.”
Kopitar was having his on-ice woes at the same time he was adjusting to the Kings’ captaincy. He said it should be a smoother process this season.
“You learn with time,” he said. “I think last year that was the biggest thing was kind of figuring it out and sometimes to speak up and what to do and how to approach it and how to help out the guys.”