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Royal evolution: Kings' Kopitar joins NHL elite

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It was flipping gorgeous. Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar(notes) skated the puck up to his own blue line, lobbed it over the heads of a couple St. Louis Blues and put it where only teammate Simon Gagne(notes) could collect it in the offensive zone. Gagne finished the play with a goal, an exclamation point at the end of a 5-0 victory Tuesday night.

But it didn't illustrate why Kopitar might be the most underrated player in the NHL. This wasn't the first time he had gone deep like that – he connected with Dustin Brown(notes) similarly last season, like a QB showing off his touch and arm strength – and even East Coasters who don't stay up late to watch West Coast games should appreciate Kopitar's offensive skill. Any hockey fan can type his name into the search bar on YouTube. Everyone should.

What YouTube won't show you, though, is how Kopitar has developed into an elite two-way player. Brown said Kopitar has become just as good defensively as he has been offensively and is approaching the level of the Detroit Red Wings' Pavel Datsyuk(notes), a three-time winner of the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward. Kings coach Terry Murray said Kopitar belongs in the same group as Datsyuk; the Vancouver Canucks' Ryan Kesler(notes), last season's Selke winner; and, Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews(notes), last season's Selke runner-up.

"He plays the game 200 feet," Murray said. "I think in the last couple of years, he's bought in totally on the checking part of the game. He's such an intelligent reader of what's going on without the puck. He's the guy that I trust in all key situations – on PK, on 5-on-5 late in games. His game has really evolved."

The ability was always there. The Wings' Henrik Zetterberg(notes), another top two-way player, who considers Kopitar one of his personal favorites, said Kopitar showed it in Sweden before he arrived in the NHL. "I don't think just because he came over here he got worse," Zetterberg said.

But while Kopitar ranged between 20 to 32 goals and 61 to 77 points in his first three NHL seasons, his plus/minus rating came in at minus-12, minus-15 and minus-17. Murray emphasized defense when he arrived in 2008-09, and Kopitar said he focused on not "swinging and swooping." He stopped anticipating the breakout and starting participating in it.

"A couple years ago, you'd go into the corner and you'd battle," Brown said. "But now he comes into the corner, takes the puck, and he's gone. That's probably the biggest difference I've noticed in his game. It's probably something from a fan standpoint you probably don't notice."

Getting the puck on his stick sooner helps Kopitar transition to offense sooner, allowing him to make plays like those deep lob passes. He was plus-6 in 2009-10, while putting up 34 goals and 81 points in 82 games. He was plus-25 last season, while putting up 25 goals and 73 points in 75 games. He is plus-5 so far this season, with four goals and nine points in five games. He ranks second in the NHL in scoring.

"It's just a process of learning and just getting it done," Kopitar said. "I'm proud of what I've become so far, but there's still room for improvement. I'm definitely still driven."

Now that Kopitar has come so far and the Kings have added Mike Richards(notes) – a two-time 30-goal scorer and one-time Selke runner-up – they are as strong at center as anyone in the West. They can go toe-to-toe with the Wings (Datsyuk and Zetterberg), Canucks (Henrik Sedin(notes) and Kesler), Blackhawks (Toews and Patrick Kane(notes)), San Jose Sharks (Joe Thornton(notes) and Logan Couture(notes)) and Anaheim Ducks (Ryan Getzlaf(notes) and Saku Koivu(notes)). That should make it more difficult to match up against them and, they hope, more difficult to eliminate them from the playoffs.

"We want to go deep," Kopitar said.

He wasn't talking about a lob pass.

FIRST PERIOD

Sleeper pick to make the playoffs: the New York Islanders. They've finally got Evgeni Nabokov(notes) in goal. They've got a new top defensive pair in Mark Streit(notes) and Steve Staios(notes). And they've got an intriguing mix of youth and experience up front, led by red-hot John Tavares(notes).

The 21-year-old has eight points in his past two games – five goals, three assists – and the Isles have won three in a row.

"I think it's time for us to kind of move past that stage of inexperience," said Tavares, the first overall pick of the 2009 draft, who signed a six-year, $33 million contract extension before the season. "Yeah, we're young, but we were able to play at a really young age, a lot of us, and it's time to really take our game to the next level, find that consistency. I don't think we have that yet, and this would be a great year for us to really make our mark that way and find our way into the playoffs."

SECOND PERIOD

The Red Wings lead the NHL in goals against. They have allowed only five goals in four games. That might not seem surprising, considering they have Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Nicklas Lidstrom(notes), who just won his seventh Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman. But they ranked only 23rd in goals against last season, and that's a big reason why coach Mike Babcock brought in two new assistants: Jeff Blashill and Bill Peters. Entering his seventh season in Detroit, he wanted fresh ideas – or at least a fresh emphasis on some old ones.

"I wanted to bring about change," Babcock said. "I was looking for as many different ideas as I could get. We talked about doing what we're doing now in the past, and we just didn't do it."

What the Wings are doing now is pressuring the puck more aggressively. When they get it, they don't give it back easily because of their puck-possession style. They allowed only 14 shots in their last game, a 3-2 victory over the Minnesota Wild on Saturday night.

"We have to rely on all five guys," Lidstrom said. "You can't be spread out when you're defending. You have to kind of move as a group of five, and I think we've been able to do that."

THIRD PERIOD

In Kesler's return from hip surgery Tuesday night, the Canucks lost to the New York Rangers 4-0. Even so, you could see how much they need him. The Selke winner was one of only three Canucks with an even rating. He won 10 of 17 faceoffs. He was back on the top penalty-kill and power-play units.

The Canucks need his speed and two-way play. They also need his grit and leadership as they try to bounce back from last season's disappointment – falling one win short of the Stanley Cup.

"We want to win every game, and we know that we don't win every game because of our skills or what we did in the past," Kesler said. "We win games by outworking the opposition."

POWER RANKINGS

TOP 6

1. Washington Capitals: Who would have thought the Caps would start 5-0-0 for the first time ever and Jason Chimera(notes) would have four times as many goals as Alex Ovechkin(notes)? Two great games up next: at Philadelphia on Thursday night, at home against the Red Wings on Saturday night.

2. Philadelphia Flyers: Sean Couturier(notes) made the team, Brayden Schenn(notes) is already up from the minors and the Flyers' best rookie is Matt Read(notes) – a 25-year-old with two goals, six points and a plus-4 rating in five games.

3. Detroit Red Wings: It's a good sign when coach Mike Babcock praises Jiri Hudler's(notes) work ethic, saying Hudler practiced as hard as ever Wednesday and that must mean his conditioning has improved.

4. Colorado Avalanche: After finishing second-to-last in the league last season, the Avs opened with a home loss to Detroit. They have won a club-record five straight road games since – at Boston, Columbus, Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto. Wow.

5. Dallas Stars: Another big surprise. The Stars have done it with great goaltending from Kari Lehtonen(notes) and a 4-0-0 home record.

6. Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs are 4-0-1, so they're headed to the playoffs! Phil Kessel(notes) has seven goals, so he's going to score 50! Calm down. The Leafs started 4-0-1 last season, too, and Kessel is as streaky as they come. Got to keep it up.

BOTTOM 6

25: San Jose Sharks: Call it "The Hangover, Part II." While last year's Stanley Cup finalists have struggled – the Boston Bruins 2-4-0, the Vancouver Canucks 2-3-1 – last year's Western Conference runners-up have struggled even worse. The Sharks' issue has been offense – a combined four goals in three straight losses.

26. Tampa Bay Lightning: The Bolts' issue has been defense. They have allowed 25 goals in their past five games, going 0-3-2. Giving up five power-play goals to the Florida Panthers seems like a fluke. But when goaltender Dwayne Roloson(notes) is this leaky, you wonder if he's creaky at 42.

27: Montreal Canadiens: One assist and a minus-5 rating for P.K. Subban(notes). Not good, especially with the defense decimated by injuries – Chris Campoli(notes) (hamstring), Andrei Markov(notes) (knee), Jaroslav Spacek(notes) (ribs).

28: Winnipeg Jets: Though Mark Scheifele(notes) scored his first NHL goal Wednesday night at Toronto, the 18-year-old hasn't looked like an NHLer thus far and might be better off going back to junior – especially because the Jets lack offensive punch. Too much pressure too soon.

29. Ottawa Senators: The good: Erik Karlsson(notes) has eight points, tying him for third in the NHL. The bad: He's still a 21-year-old defenseman who's minus-5. The ugly: Have you seen the Sens?

30. Columbus Blue Jackets: According to Babcock, "Columbus is on the verge of breaking out." But is that because the Blue Jackets outshot the Stars, 40-18, in Tuesday night's 3-2 loss? Or is that because Babcock's Wings have been off all week and face the Jackets on Friday night, and he doesn't want them overlooking an 0-5-1 team missing Jeff Carter(notes) (foot) and James Wisniewski(notes) (suspension)?

PLUS/MINUS

Plus: Good to see NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan(notes) isn't afraid to slap a star player with a suspension. He gave two games to Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang(notes) for boarding Winnipeg Jets winger Alex Burmistrov(notes) on Monday night, and I disagree that it was a ticky-tack Shanaban. Letang saw Burmistrov's back and finished his check through the numbers anyway. It wasn't catastrophic, but it could have been.

Minus: Not only is goaltender Jaroslav Halak(notes) struggling, the St. Louis Blues are having trouble on special teams. They rank 29th overall on both the power play and penalty kill.

Plus: Six overtime goals have been scored so far, and four have been scored by defensemen. The Kings' Jack Johnson(notes) has two. The Capitals' Mike Green(notes) and Dennis Wideman(notes) have one each.

Minus: The Bruins have been brutal. Just when I thought they would make me look bad for writing about their hangover, beating the Chicago Blackhawks 3-2 on Saturday night, here came a gong-show 4-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night. But forget coach Claude Julien's ejection, captain Zdeno Chara's(notes) awkward attempt to fire up the team and all the penalties. When are they going to start scoring? Milan Lucic(notes) has only one assist in six games.

Plus: From the players' perspective, it's a plus that their union is challenging the league's accounting of hockey-related revenue, holding up escrow checks to players and revenue-sharing payments to teams. Some think it's a bad sign ahead of labor negotiations. It may be. Regardless, the union is supposed to do things like this – aggressively look after the players' interests – and seems better positioned to do so under new executive director Don Fehr.

Minus: As Puck Daddy has pointed out, the early returns have not been good on the six-year, $27 million contract the Buffalo Sabres gave Ville Leino(notes). One goal in five games. Benched in the third period Tuesday night at Montreal. This is down side of spending big: buyer's remorse.

@COTSONIKA TWEET

"Weird feeling the Winnipeg Jets get their first win tonight. Coach is ticked. Back at home. No big ceremony. No Sid or Geno for Penguins."

Tweeted that on Monday, and the Jets actually won that night, 2-1, rebounding from an 0-3-0 start and giving Winnipeg its first NHL victory in 15 years. Hey, every now and then, I'm right – though, as a few followers pointed out, the Penguins were missing Dustin Jeffrey(notes), Tyler Kennedy(notes) and Brooks Orpik(notes) as well as Sidney Crosby(notes) and Evgeni Malkin(notes).

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