What We Learned: NHL’s best player? It’s Anze Kopitar

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LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 7: Anze Kopitar #11 of the Los Angeles Kings listens to the national anthem prior to the game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on January 7, 2016 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Aaron Poole/NHLI via Getty Images)

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LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 7: Anze Kopitar #11 of the Los Angeles Kings listens to the national anthem prior to the game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on January 7, 2016 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Aaron Poole/NHLI via Getty Images)

(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.)

The decline of Sidney Crosby has created a number of odd circumstances across the NHL.

The most important of these is that the title of “best forward alive” is a lot more up in the air than it was say, two years ago. You can suddenly make a case for a lot more players, including Crosby, holding that title.

It used to be that the answer to the question was “Sidney Crosby, [huge gap], some other guy.” That other guy fluctuated. Sometimes it was Evgeni Malkin, sometimes Steven Stamkos, sometimes Alex Ovechkin, and sometimes Jonathan Toews, among other players.

One name that occasionally cropped up in these rankings was Anze Kopitar, who made his eight-year, $80 million extension with Los Angeles official this week.

Over the last three years it was probably reasonable to argue that it has been Kopitar who has risen to the rank of “best in the league,” because when he's on the ice, other teams effectively have no chance to beat the Kings.

Let's start with the fact that over the last three seasons, Kopitar has only been on the ice for 83 goals against at full strength, despite playing nearly 2,900 minutes. That's a goals-against per 60 of just 1.73, second-fewest in the league among forwards with more than 2,500 minutes played since 2013-14. He also has possession numbers pushing 60 percent, ahead of guys like Patrice Bergeron and Joe Thornton, and well ahead of Jonathan Toews.

The thing with Kopitar is that everyone acknowledges his defensive prowess. The things he is able to do to keep people out of the Los Angeles zone for the vast majority of his time on ice should be studied like a Renoir: No one can do it, but everyone should want to know how he does. Here are his ranks among the 108 forwards with more than 2,500 minutes at 5-on-5 in the last three seasons in terms of events conceded to the other time per 60 minutes. It's almost literally unbelievable:

NHL
NHL

Basically, no one gets to the net around him, no one bothers Jonathan Quick behind him, and certainly no one scores. This is, of course, the mark of great two-way players, and centers especially. By comparison, in the same categories Patrice Bergeron —widely regarded as the best defensive center in the league — ranks fifth, fifth, third, first, and 32nd, respectively. That is to say that he's almost always in the same neighborhood as Bergeron but concedes far fewer goals.

The difference between he and Bergeron, or even he and Toews to a lesser extent, is that he is a scoring machine as well, it just doesn't always show up where you'd expect.

Kopitar scores 1.91 points per 60 at 5-on-5, which puts him just inside the top-40 in the league over the last three seasons. Not a great number, but one has to keep in mind that this is in a Darryl Sutter system that necessarily depresses shooting percentages. The Kings win on quantity of shots and scoring chances, not quality, so for Kopitar to come up as an elite puck distributor at 5-on-5 — he has about as many primary assists in this time period as the Sedins, Jiri Hudler, Jonathan Toews, and John Tavares — is very impressive.

Moreover, though, he is a monster on the power play. Despite a not-great points per 60 at 5-on-5, he is one of only 15 players to clear 170 points the last 200 or so games since the start of 2013-14. That's 50-plus behind Jamie Benn and Sidney Crosby, but if you're in a category with only 14 other guys in the league, almost all of whom are widely hailed as elite scorers, maybe you deserve some of that recognition for yourself (and shout out, by the way, to Blake Wheeler, who is also in this club almost inexplicably).

He also does this with less help than either Toews or Bergeron. Toews plays with guys like Marian Hossa and often Patrick Kane, whose scoring records speak for themselves. Patrice Bergeron has the deeply undervalued Brad Marchand on his wing.

Kopitar has had Marian Gaborik and Justin Williams as his two most common linemates in the last three years. Those are obviously good players but they don't exactly fill the net like these other guys do. It's therefore possible and reasonable to argue that Kopitar is a driver of play and offensive numbers in ways that those other guys, while very good, are not necessarily.

Obviously they make the players around them better but to the extent of Kopitar? Tough to make that claim.

NHL
NHL

This comes with the caveat that Gaborik has always been an amazing offensive player since these statistics became truly trackable in 2007-08. He simply toiled away on some not-great teams until recent years. Likewise, Williams is always great in possession, but kicked it to another level when playing with Kopitar. Further, you should always be suspect of short-term player-with-and-without statistics, but Kopitar played more than 3,200 minutes at 5-on-5 with Williams, and is up over 1,000 with Gaborik, so that's an appreciable chunk of time. The only other thing to caution about here is that this is early-30s Gaborik, and not “mid-20s in his prime” Gaborik. 

This is one of those “what if so-and-so had elite help?” things, which is always difficult to quantify or guess about. Nonetheless, the fact that Kopitar apparently helps across the board here goes a long way toward supporting the idea that he just helps everyone on the ice to a ludicrous extent.

The last thing to note here is that this contract carries Kopitar into his late 30s, though it does come with provisions that make him more tradeable as time goes on, so it might not be such a huge concern if he drops off a cliff and they need to pawn him off on a team that needs help to get to the cap floor.

Obviously scoring talent diminishes over the course of a player's 30s, and often does so significantly. But this is not necessarily true of a player's ability to control possession, which Kopitar does better than anyone in the league. So even if he loses a bit of velocity on the fastball (not that his game is based in any way on speed, but rather in the slow and methodical pummeling of opponents) there's very little doubt he should continue to be an elite possession player for the next five years or so.

To that end, it's very reasonable to say that Kopitar is not only the borderline-best forward in the league, but also likely to hold at least some sort of legitimate claim to that title for at least the first half of his contract.

And by that token, the fact that only Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane have larger cap hits than he does makes the new contract seem pretty reasonable, all things considered.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: Hey uh don't look now but the Ducks are now 7-2-1 since Christmas, and that's probably right about what you feel like they should be capable of doing on a regular basis.

Arizona Coyotes: Very nice of The Powers That Be to give the Coyotes a former first-rounder in exchange for getting John Scott out of the All-St… I mean uhhhhhhhh good trade for Don Maloney here.

Boston Bruins: Know who this Kopitar contract is good for? The Bruins. Because Patrice Bergeron is signed through 2021 at just $6.875 million AAV. That and Erik Karlsson's current deal might be the two best in the league.

Buffalo Sabres: This is a really nice thing. When did the Sabres become so likable? Was it when they got rid of Steve Ott and John Scott? It was, you say? Hmm.

Calgary Flames: The Flames have the second-worst road record in the league at 6-11-3. Problem is that only 19 of their remaining games are at home.

Carolina Hurricanes: James Wisniewski is close to coming back, but why would you want to break up that young D group these days?

Chicago: Bryan Bickell remains the object lesson in not-paying for one good playoff performance.

Colorado Avalanche: Losses like Saturday's are why you don't have Cody McLeod on the ice in important situations. You need people who think the game at a high level in high-leverage situations.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Yeah here's why that thing about McLeod is true. Crazy that a bad shot-block actually helped a John Tortorella team for once.

Dallas Stars: Well at least they got a point out of this one, right?

Detroit Red Wings: If the Wings need Teemu Pulkkinen to kickstart the offense, they probably need a lot more than Teemu Pulkkinen.

Edmonton Oilers: Yeah Cam Talbot was really good on Saturday but I'm not sure I get this contract.

Florida Panthers: The sooner Aaron Ekblad gets back in the lineup, the sooner this team can get its act together.

Los Angeles Kings: Yeah maybe a good strategy going forward is not giving up four goals in the last 11:52 of a game you led 3-1. In my opinion.

Minnesota Wild: The Wild have dropped four in a row now, which isn't good.

Montreal Canadiens: The fact that we have been robbed of future headlines like this sure is proof of what a good and fun and cool league this is. 

Nashville Predators: With a primary assist on the game-winner Saturday night, Ryan Johansen is up to 2-5-7 in his five-game Nashville career. It's almost like this whole time he was........... actually good.

New Jersey Devils: Show me a coach with a better record than he deserves and I'll show you a coach getting elite goaltending like 95 percent or the time. Another 38 saves and a shutout for your pal Corey Schneider.

New York Islanders: Brock Nelson is up to 18 goals despite a decreased role this season. Feels like more people should be talking about this.

New York Rangers: Definitely wise to read into good performances by all-time great goalies that an entire bad team is now good again.

Ottawa Senators: Great pass from Bobby Ryan to set up the Mika Zibanejad game-winner.

Philadelphia Flyers: It's crazy that people in Dubai have substantive opinions about the state of the Flyers but here we are.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Don't give Carl Hagelin top-six minutes. Great third-line player but people think he's more than he is.

San Jose Sharks: Wouldn't it be nice if kind young boy Tomas Hertl turned back into what everyone hoped he could be as a rookie? That would be swell. And he might just be doing that now.

St. Louis Blues: Man when you need overtime to beat the Habs these days, that spells trouble.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Riding a season-high five game winning streak, the Bolts are finally starting to look like the team that won the Eastern Conference playoff championshiplast season.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Trenchant analysis here. Just real go-for-the-jugular stuff.

Vancouver Canucks: Bo Horvat is playing pretty well these days.

Washington Capitals: You're losing the Vezina, Braden! It was yours and you're losing!!!!!

Winnipeg Jets: Yeah, eh

Gold Star Award

San Jose Sharks' Marc-Edouard Vlasic (44) controls the puck behind Tampa Bay Lightning's Brett Connolly (14) during the second period of an NHL hockey game Sunday, Feb. 15, 2015, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
San Jose Sharks' Marc-Edouard Vlasic (44) controls the puck behind Tampa Bay Lightning's Brett Connolly (14) during the second period of an NHL hockey game Sunday, Feb. 15, 2015, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Marc-Edouard Vlasic had two goals and assist against the Stars, which is good. For a defenseman. Against one of the best teams in the league.

Minus of the Weekend

Via http://www.cseblog.com/2012/07/arithmetic-puzzle-broken-calculator.html
Via http://www.cseblog.com/2012/07/arithmetic-puzzle-broken-calculator.html

War on Ice shutting down later this season is the worst thing to happen to hockey in a while.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User “roon” is trying to “roon” the Oilers. Haha thanks folks.

To MIN

RNH 

To EDM

One of

Brodin/Scandella/Dumba + 

Small + for Brodin and a larger plus for Scandella or Dumba.

Signoff

Get moving or I'll tear you up like a kleenex at a snot party.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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