EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- It would be easy to think that Anze Kopitar got his defensive mindset from his father and coach, Matjaz, growing up in Slovenia. It would seem natural for a son to emulate his father’s style of play.
But the Los Angeles Kings center can't really say that was the case because he remembers what type of player his father was toward the end of his playing career.
"I've got all those games taped," Kopitar said. "I've watched them a lot. I even played against him once when he was a [club] player-coach and I was on the other team. We did bump into each other and we both went down and that was the end of it.
SOG: 189 | +/-: 28
Matjaz later did emphasize "a full game," which was further engrained in Kopitar in the European circuit as a teenager, through watching his boyhood idol, former Detroit Red Wings forward Sergei Fedorov, and through two defensive-minded NHL coaches in Terry Murray and Darryl Sutter with the Kings.
While he's already established as a premier two-way center, Kopitar's 200-foot dominance has finally garnered talk of him as a legitimate Selke Trophy candidate as the NHL's top defensive forward going into a game against the Minnesota Wild on Monday night.
It's not that Kopitar has been overlooked in the past; he finished fourth in Selke voting last season behind Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks, Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins and Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings.
"I played with Kesler in Vancouver," Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell said. "No disrespect to [Kesler], but it's just like the last couple of years, just how Kopi controls the game through the middle of the ice. It's just incredible what he does for our hockey club down low on the wall. No one can get the puck off of him. He'll use his big body, big reach and sticks his big [rear end] out there. He protects the puck. You see him on a power play, and it's just like, 'OK, just give him the puck.' There will be two or three guys on him and he still finds a way to enter the zone and fight those guys off and get it set up in the offensive side.
"I said a long time ago and people laughed at me … you look at Datsyuk and [Henrik] Zetterberg [of Detroit] … that's who he is. He's that good. You watch every little clip and who do you see in the defensive zone, right down by the goal line? It's Kopi. Yet somehow, he's at the other end of the ice leading the rush."
Kopitar rates among the best puck possession players in the game, according to websites that track such data. He was in the top 11 in the NHL in total faceoffs won and plus-minus through Saturday. But his value is probably better measured in relation to his teammates.
When Sutter has wanted to get a slumping player going this season, he has paired him with Kopitar. Sutter had Kopitar center Jeff Carter recently, and has also put Dwight King on his line. The latest pairing of Kopitar with Marian Gaborik has started to inject Gaborik, who has eight points in the past nine games.
"One of our most consistent performers all year," linemate Justin Williams said. "You know what you're getting from him. It seems like you're either getting a good game or a great game from him. There's never anything lower than that."
Kopitar cites former Kings coach Murray for emphasizing defense in Kopitar's early NHL career. It was Kings general manager Dean Lombardi's philosophy of building a contender from the "back-end out," and Kopitar's game fit right into Murray's system.
"Year 3 (2008-09) was when I started to realize how important it was," Kopitar said of Murray. "He put defense first."
By then it was difficult not to notice the 6-foot-3, 224-pound Kopitar as an emerging force. Toronto Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle, who previously coached the Anaheim Ducks, once said that Kopitar was a "man among boys" the first time he coached against him.
It was in those early years that Kopitar went up against Fedorov, a two-time Selke winner who caught Kopitar's attention with his turns as a defenseman. That Fedorov could also score made for an ideal player to model his game after. That first game against Fedorov?
"It was definitely weird," Kopitar said. "There’s a certain point in life where you hope you can get the guy's autograph, and then you've got to beat the guy."
Kopitar actually does have an autographed Fedorov stick somewhere in his house. The feeling now is that it's only a matter of time before Kopitar has a Selke of his own.
"I think he should be a Selke finalist every year," former Kings and current Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi said. "He's very underrated. He has never sacrificed any defense for his offensive side of the game, even though he easily could with his skill set. But he's the type of guy who's always in the right position.
"I do think he doesn't get as much credit as he deserves playing out West. I don't know if it's the time difference. I don't know what it is, but if he was playing in the East, he'd have a lot more attention showered on him."
Added Williams: "Obviously he doesn't get the recognition that he would on a Canadian team or a highly populated Eastern Conference team, but I'm not even sure he wants to be."
The Kings began a sort-of Selke campaign for Kopitar on Twitter in the form of a picture that resembled a movie poster with endorsements from pundits around the NHL. Kopitar, who is on his way to leading the Kings in scoring for the seventh straight season, doesn't want the attention and agreed with Williams' sentiment.
He has no qualms about not being touted as much as the Toews and Bergerons.
"It's definitely less pressure, on me and my game," Kopitar said. "I've been asked that [Selke] question. For myself, I've had some individual awards too. Compared to the team awards, it's not even close where you can enjoy it with your teammates. I'm not playing for the Selke. I'm playing for something bigger."
Photo via our friends @ThxBud