MIDDLE MEN: CENTERS OF ATTENTION
As the Kings' first pick (11th overall) in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Anze Kopitar is largely considered the organization's top prospect. After spending last season in Sweden, Kopitar is expected to challenge for a roster spot when the Kings go to training camp in September.
"(Kopitar) came over to our training camp last year and he probably could have stayed and very easily played at Manchester," Kings Director of Amateur Scouting Al Murray said. "But Anze chose to go back to Sweden because wanted to play another year there. He had a very good year."
Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi, a firm believer in the theory that asking a young player to do too much too soon can stunt his development, will likely error on the side of caution with Kopitar. Still, if the Slovenia-native is ready for the NHL, the Kings will be ready for him.
"Anze is coming back to camp with us this year and I know his intention is to make the Kings," Murray says.
"He played at the World Championships again this year and he was the top scorer there (10 goals, 13 points in five games), so we'll see how he does. He has a real history of playing well against good competition and rising up."
At 6-4, 220 pounds, Kopitar has good size and excellent agility, qualities that translate well to the NHL. Though Kopitar is not gifted with exceptional speed, he is a strong skater and an outstanding playmaker.
According to Murray, Kopitar's upbringing gives him another distinct advantage.
"I think he has a real good opportunity because he's a coach's son," Murray says. "If you look at sports, a lot of people like to get coaches' sons because they have been around the game a lot, they've seen technical stuff. His dad is a former player himself and was one of the coaches of the Slovenian National Team."
Coaches kids are often immersed in the game and its fundamentals, so by the time they arrive at the professional level, they think and behave like coaches themselves.
"Kids whose dads are coaches tend to have a lot of discipline," Murray offers. "There are a lot of expectations on them, and they usually don't get in too much trouble because they have something to live up to."
Kopitar's unique Slovenian upbringing is one of the things that made the 10 teams that picked ahead of the Kings in the '05 draft skittish.
"We were very happy that Anze was able to slide to us," Murray says. "He was a player that we had ranked in the top three prospects in last year's draft. We knew why he slid – it was because a lot of people had concerns about his background being from Slovenia, which is not one of the main hockey playing countries.
"For us, Anze being from Slovenia wasn't a big thing. We've drafted players from all over the map. We're probably more worldly than some other teams, but we're looking for the best players and we don't care too much about where they come from or their background."
Joining Kopitar on the list of promising Kings center prospects is Boyle, a native of Hingham, Mass. who had 22 goals and 50 points in leading Boston College to the Frozen Four last season.
The 6-7, 222-pounder has another year of college eligibility remaining, but Murray is hopeful he'll opt to turn pro.
"We're hoping that he signs with us," Murray says. "If he does, he'll be with either Manchester or the Kings but has the option of going back to Boston College, which wouldn't be the worst thing for him. We hope he decides to move on to pro hockey and give himself a little bigger challenge, but he gets to make those decisions."
Boyle and his B.C. teammates lost to Wisconsin in the NCAA Final and Murray says all that postseason experience can only aid in a young player's development.
"(B.C.'s post-season run) was a terrific learning experience for Brian," Murray says. "It really helped his development. We hope our players can all make all-star games and National teams, and play for championships and in tournaments, because those experiences can't help but make them better players. You want your players playing as much as possible."
Perhaps nobody on the Kings' roster wants to play more than Matt Ryan, an undrafted free agent who has used hard work and determination to become one of the Kings' top prospects.
"Matty is a terrific story," Murray says. "He's one of those guys that was never drafted and came to our camp as a tryout. From Rookie Camp into our main camp, he was one of those guys who just kept hanging around and wouldn't go away.
"For anybody that doesn't think it's possible,he's a great success story. He was undrafted, and we ended up signing him and he actually played games in the National Hockey League. It just goes to show that if you don't quit and you don't give up, good things can happed for you if you're hard working."
Ryan, a 5-11, 182-pound native of Sharon, Ontario, appeared in 12 games for the Kings last season, picking up one assist.
"I was up (with the Kings) for about a month," Ryan says, "and it was a great experience. It was unbelievable, obviously, to play at that level. It was awesome for me and for my family."
While Ryan admits that he was disappointed to be snubbed on draft day, he says he says the experience was not demoralizing.
"I've always had to work hard to get what I want," Ryan says, "so I just went back to work, and when I did, I just worked that much harder."
Filling out the stable of young Kings center prospects is Trevor Lewis, a center they acquired in a draft day deal that sent Pavol Demitra to Minnesota.
Lombardi says that as difficult as it was to part with Demitra, the prospect of shedding salary while also getting younger with Lewis and Patrick O'Sullivan was a move that had to be made.
Scouts rave about the speed of Lewis, who spent last season with Des Moines of the USHL. Utah-born and Colorado-reared, count the University of Michigan-bound Lewis among the growing list of American prospects.
"You're seeing more players from throughout the U.S.," says Murray, who will travel wherever, whenever, to see a prospect.
"We're very, very excited to have Trevor," Murray says. "He's a player who got better and better as the year went along. He wasn't on the radar too much when the season started, but our guys first noticed him in a tournament in September. He was a player who we had very high on our list."
Lewis has committed to play for the University of Michigan next season. Before that, he'll be among those on hand when the Kings host their young prospects in El Segundo later this summer.
"We'll have a development camp July 10-14," Murray says. "Everybody we drafted this weekend is committed to being there. Fans that come out will get a look at a lot of the young players that, hopefully, will be the backbone of our team for a long time."
For some in the elite group of centermen, that time may be at hand.