Ever since the Kings first Cup, and totally ramped up by the Kings-Hawks Double of ’13 and ’14, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews have been handcuffed together. They’ve been essentially the same player every since they came into the league a year apart. Toews was the slightly better goal-scorer, Kopitar the slightly better playmaker. They were clearly the heartbeat of multiple Cup winners. Toews was a dominant force in ’13, and Kopitar dribbled Toews’s head like a basketball in ’14.
And being a year older, Kopitar seemed to hit a wall a year before Toews did. In ’14-’15, Kopitar dropped to just 16 goals and 64 points, both the lowest since his rookie year. Toews was racking up another ring. And then Toews followed Kopitar into the dungeon of age, failing to register 60 points for the first time since his rookie year.
Neither of them improved last year, and both faced serious discussion if they’re dominant days were over. And it was more than just an individual question, because both meant so much to their teams that if they were done being premier #1 centers in the league, it almost certainly meant their teams’ time as true contenders were over as well.
The hope for Hawks fans is that with Kopitar always being a year ahead of Toews, his renaissance so far this year is a harbinger of what Toews can do on the donkey end of the age of 30.
Kopitar comes into tonight’s game at over a point-per-game, and some of his underlying numbers are the best they’ve been since the Kings’ last run. His relative-Corsi again over +3.00, a hallmark of his days as the Hart candidate no one bothered to stay up and watch (including his simply other worldly 61% mark in 2014). His expected-goals relative to his team are up as well from the last two years, but where the numbers jump out is his individual ones.
Kopitar is averaging three more attempts at even-strength this year than he has in the past three seasons, and in line with his 2012-2014 heyday. His individual expected-goals is up to 0.77, which again is way higher than he’d put up the past three years.
Has there been some luck? Oh, sure. He’s shooting 21% at evens and 19% overall. That’s not going to continue. And Kopitar is still tasked with facing the toughest competition the Kings see. Even at just 30 to ask someone to combat top lines and score like a top line seems an awfully big ask.
Clearly, Kopitar has benefitted from the presence of rookie Alex Iafallo. While Iafallo’s numbers aren’t impressive, his game that has real dash and creativity has allowed Kopitar to not have to create and score his own chances. Last year, Kopitar spent most of the season with clinically dead Marian Gaborik and clinically dumb Dustin Brown. The year before that Kopitar was dragging around Brown and Milan Lucic, and you’d be hard pressed to find bigger dummards to have as wingers. Combined with Darryl Sutter’s system, Kopitar was basically forced to try and bulldoze everything. Even Brown is scoring now, getting to just stand around while Kopitar and Iafallo exploit openings. They can be more expressive.
The coaching change has also been a boon, as Kopitar is now allowed to carry the puck through the neutral zone and even try to enter through the middle, something Sutter would have sentenced Kopitar to shit-shoveling duty at the Sutter Farm for in the past. Kopitar has more freedom ever, and drawing defenses to him gives more space to Iafallo, who can actually do something with it unlike Lucic or Gaborik checking his investment portfolio.
Cleary, a coaching change isn’t going to help Toews anytime soon. But realizing a center with that many miles can no longer do everything, giving him a dynamic winger to take some of the creation pressure off seems to have been the trick for Kopitar. Would DeBrincat be that for Toews? Sadly, we may never find out.
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