Los Angeles Kings

Will Anze Kopitar return to form next season?

(Photo by David Berding/Icon Sportswire)

Anze Kopitar needed rest. And hopefully, he got it.

Before we start picking apart the Slovenian’s 2016-17 season, docking him for not shooting enough or not winning another Selke Trophy, we must consider the fact that Kopitar spent the month prior to the NHL season in “playoff mode.” He was in Minsk, Belarus, last Labor Day weekend, leading Slovenia to a qualification slot for the 2018 Olympic Games. A few weeks later, Kopitar was in Toronto, helping power Team Europe to the World Cup of Hockey Final.

Is it any wonder that Kopitar struggled to break away from the pack last season? He had to be dead tired, even before the Kings broke camp to begin the regular season.

But no excuses.

The Kings need a bounce-back season from Kopitar, and if you believe in reversion to the mean as a lockdown statistical eventuality, they will get it. The 52 points Kopitar produced last season were the lowest total of his 11-year NHL career, except for the strike-shortened 2012-13 campaign. The 29-year-old had averaged between 0.80 and 0.99 points per game in every season of his NHL career until last year, so either Kopitar got really old really fast, or last year was the statistical aberration in an otherwise Hall of Fame-worthy career.

But wait, there’s one more excuse: Besides being gassed from international competition and the compressed schedule in 2016-17, Kopitar also played the majority of his minutes with Marion Gaborik and Dustin Brown.

If any two players’ skills have diminished more than the rest of the Kings, it would have to be Gaborik and Brown. Kopitar had much more success working with Milan Lucic, Tyler Toffoli and Justin Williams in recent years, but two of those players are gone and Toffoli is a fixture on “That 70s Line” with Jeff Carter and Tanner Pearson.

Newly hired head coach John Stevens will have to find a way to help Kopitar thrive rather than saddling him with sheltering degrading forwards who simply don’t have the juice they once possessed. Perhaps speedy Adrian Kempe or Jonny Brodzinski could spend some time with Kopitar to help freshen things a bit. Maybe free-agent acquisition Mike Cammalleri will be a good fit. Getting some speed, creativity and scoring punch on Kopitar’s line could help the Slovenian get more shots off, and more from high-percentage areas.

If there was anything troubling about Kopitar’s game last season it was the paucity of shots he took (150, 1.97 per game) and his alarmingly low shooting percentage (eight percent, lowest of his NHL career).

But Kopitar is an assist man first and foremost. Rather than pushing the slippery playmaker to shoot more, the Kings should pair him with linemates who allow him to play the patient, distributive style of hockey that has made him a puck-possession juggernaut over the last decade.

The Kings have had a relatively quiet offseason – some would call it scary quiet – but with Stevens now at the helm and the crafty Pierre Turgeon ready to step in as the Kings’ offensive coordinator, we can look forward to a more freewheeling club.

Those subtle changes, coupled with a month’s worth of sleep, should help Kopitar get back on track in 2016-17. He’s simply too good not to be a driving force in L.A.

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