Foxy's tales: Kopitar is in shape for a good season, and why a change can do you good
Did he want to be an above-average player for another 10 to 15 years, something he was more than capable of being, or did he have it in him to be a true No. 1 center in the league, as opposed to just the No. 1 center for the Kings?
The area that he was asked to address was his fitness and to see if he could take it to an elite level, so he would be able to withstand the night-in, night-out demands on a player through an 82-game schedule. No one doubted his skill, and no one doubted his understanding of the game, but there was concern about whether he had the level of fitness to lead a team. His start has erased those doubts.
More than anything, I think that his start has to do with being able to enjoy the game. In the past, his fitness level was not allowing him to have as much fun as he should have had. But if you spend many of your shifts just fighting through the pain of not having enough air in you lungs or with the lactic acid building up in your legs, it is not as much fun as it should be.
This summer, he paid a price so that he can now go through each shift and each game without having to worry as much about how he feels physically. He didn’t change much, but one adjustment he made to his training was to spend more time on the track doing sprint intervals of 100, 200, 300 and 400 meters. This allowed him to, as much as possible without actually playing the game, simulate the energy needed during a regular 40- to 50-second shift at NHL speed. Anyone who has run 200 or 400 meters all-out knows what it feels like, and this change to his training has gone a long way toward getting him to an elite fitness level.
The game Kopitar played in Phoenix, a 5-3 Kings win, was as close to a complete game as Anze has played. Numerous times, he was the first forward back (not unusual as a centerman), and he won or at least tied every one-on-one battle. He was the closest and most accessible forward for the Kings defensemen to make the first pass, and his proximity to the passer made that pass as easy as possible. With the puck, he was his usual strong, skating, puck-control powerhouse, but when combined with his attention to the full 200 feet of the ice, he played a complete game. His battle looking ahead will be to keep this up as long as possible, but it appears he has the fitness to go along with his other talents.
How quickly things change. The second period versus the Coyotes was full of turnovers and the inability to create or sustain any pressure on the Phoenix defense. Coaches change line combinations many times during the course of a season. When it doesn’t work, it might be the easiest thing to second guess. When it does work, wow, what a difference.
Line changes were made during the second intermission, and the Kings looked like a different team. The difference had less to do with how the skills and talents of the players worked together and more to do with players realizing changes were made because someone had to get it going.
Brad Richardson, normally a fourth-line player, was moved up a slot, and he played both center and left wing in the third. Michal Handzus and Alexander Frolov were moved down a line. Ryan Smyth was double-shifted. Jarret Stoll started to drive through the middle. Although lines were shifted around, most everybody continued to get a regular shift, with the exception of Raitis Ivanans.
Reacting quickly may be just as important as skating quickly, and there is little doubt the Kings played quick in the third period with no hesitation and with one common goal of getting the Coyotes on their heels and keeping them there.
The adjustment was made by the coaching staff, and the execution was implemented by the players, and all four lines, whatever their makeup, participated.
The third period may have been the closest the Kings have come to playing a total team game, with everyone having a positive effect, and they may have proved to themselves that who you play with is important, but that when the intensity and tempo of play do not drop off, regardless of who is on the ice with whom, everyone can be extremely effective.
It’s still early and you've got to take into consideration that the Kings are still a young team with some growing to do, but they played a mature third period in Phoenix and were as effective as this group has been.
-- Jim Fox
Jim Fox is a former Kings forward and the award-winning color commentator for Kings telecasts on Fox Sports West He played for the Kings from 1980 to 1990 and ranks eighth on the Kings’ all-time-scoring list. You can get more insight from Jim and insights about the L.A. Kings at www.lakings.com.
Photo: Anze Kopitar, far left, smiles and celebrates alongside his teammates after scoring a goal against the Phoenix Coyotes on Monday. Credit: Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press