He’s the leading scorer in the NHL, but Anze Kopitar isn’t the most popular athlete in his country right now.
With Slovenia clinching a berth in the 2010 World Cup of soccer, Kopitar’s hockey success has taken a brief back seat.
Zlatko Dedic became a national hero with his goal to beat Russia, clinching a berth in South Africa.
“Yeah, I think he’s more popular than I am right now,” smiled Kopitar. “That’s great for our country to make it to the World Cup. We’re not really a soccer force. But it’s great and it’s great to see us make it.”
Fortunately for the hockey world, Slovenia hasn’t had the same success on the ice, meaning that Kopitar won’t have to be contended with at the Olympics.
The six-foot-three, 222-pound centre has been a force with the Los Angeles Kings this season. Heading into Wednesday’s game against the Edmonton Oilers, the native of Jesenice, Slovenia, had 14 goals and 19 assists for a league-leading 33 points.
“Just being on top of the league right now is something I’m really proud of, because it’s something that doesn’t happen very often,” Kopitar said. “It’s really a good thing, because there are a lot of really good hockey players in this league, and just to be on top says that I must be doing something right."
Kopitar, 22, was the Kings first pick – 11th overall – in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. He’s currently in his fourth season with the Kings and is already half way to equalling his point total of last year, having only played just over a quarter of the schedule.
“He’s having a breakout season for us,” said Kings head coach Terry Murray. “He really paid attention to the defensive side, the checking part of the game. That given him an opportunity to show what he can do on the offensive side.
“He’s played extremely well with a lot of confidence. He has great hands, great skill, he’s a big bodied guy that can take it to the net and good things are falling in place.”
The Kings went into Wednesday’s game sixth in the Western Conference standings. They’re trying to break a seven-year playoff drought this season.
“That would be huge making the playoffs,” Kopitar said. “I think we’re pretty confident about this group. We’ve shown that we can play, but the next step is to play consistent daily and that’s how we’re going to win hockey games.”
The addition of Ryan Smyth and Justin Williams to the Kings lineup has not only helped the entire hockey club, but also allowed Kopitar to reach new heights this season.
Until Smyth got hurt, the line was one of the most productive in the league.
“There’s no question why the line is playing well and that’s why he’s breaking out this year,” Murray said. “But it also comes down to the player himself making the decision to play well.
“He’s on a role right now and when you get on a role as a player sometimes, you get great things happening and you want to keep building on it with the same kind of energy and intensity.”
In 82 games last season, Kopitar had 27 goals and 39 assists, but he finished the year at minus-17. Heading into Wednesday’s game he was at plus-five.
“Coming in, I just wanted to have a good season, be a complete player and try to take care at both ends of the ice,” Kopitar said. “I just wanted to go from there and try to work hard every game. Last year I think I took a pretty good step with my defensive game and with the same system this year I’ve gotten pretty used to it.
"It’s easier this year for me, for sure and I think it’s showing on the ice.”