Kings center Anze Kopitar faces off against Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf during… (Mark J. Terrill / Associated…)
Surely, someone eventually would reveal what was wrong with center Anze Kopitar after the Kings lost in the playoffs to the Chicago Blackhawks.
Perhaps his perplexing scoring slump had to do with a recurrence of the knee injury that sidelined him at the start of the year. Or maybe it was an issue with his hand, or his shoulder, or a wrist, all areas where a player needs to be strong in order to handle the puck … something, anything to explain why the Kings' perennial leading scorer came up dry at the most important time of year.
You've heard of Mystery, Alaska? This was Mystery, L.A., and the puzzle wasn't solved until post-season when news of the injuries trickled out one by one. Yes, the Kings were beaten up. You almost needed a spreadsheet to keep track of who was going under the knife.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the MRI machine. Kopitar was not one of the many playoff injury victims. Sore, to be sure. But quite intact.
"When you look at it — the whole year — his numbers were off," Kings Coach Darryl Sutter said. "He started behind the 8-ball with the injury and missed the first game. Middle of February, March, it looked like he was playing well.
"And I think he just ran out of gas. He got us to the third round."
The Kings did a far better job than most teams in recent years as far as dealing with the Stanley Cup hangover. How they fare this season — which starts Thursday night in St. Paul against the Minnesota Wild — rests, in part, on Kopitar's shoulders.
Kopitar, who has been the Kings' leading scorer starting with the 2007-08 season, has received no shortage of advice since the playoffs ended. He said Sutter and Hall of Fame left wing Luc Robitaille, the Kings' president of business operations, pushed him to shoot more.
Additionally, he has spoken with close friend and longtime linemate, captain Dustin Brown, about how to handle being targeted by the opposition. Kopitar scored a mere three goals in 18 playoff games in the spring.
"It's a little bit different," Kopitar said. "I guess you do get circled. That's just a process you've got to go through. I've talked with Brownie enough that it's the one obstacle you have to battle through.
"Sometimes, you do and sometimes you don't. It's a matter of making sure that most of the time you do."
The topic of expectation was addressed at Kopitar's season-ending meeting with Sutter. In March, Sutter had said that Kopitar was the best all-around centerman he had coached, and even last week he noted that Kopitar was only 26.
"When you're a top player, everyone is going to have a season where if you get 60 points, they'll say you should have had 80 points," Sutter said. "Eighty, you should have had 100. You know what, it's just about winning. He's not even in his prime yet.
Kopitar, who married in the summer, had 10 goals and 42 points in 47 regular season games. The loss to the Blackhawks has been stored away but not forgotten.
"I think you have to put it behind you," he said. "It doesn't serve you any good if you're still moping about it four months later. The only thing you can do is use that as a motivation to prepare for this season."
Said Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi: "That's part of the gig. It's a different challenge than he's ever faced. He'll get through it just like he got through everything else. If you look at him, he's in the best shape he's ever been.
"The thing about Kopi that people don't realize, and he doesn't get enough credit for — he's a 200-foot player, in the [Pavel] Datsyuk mold. That's the beauty of him. He can still make major contributions to winning because he's not all one way."
Los Angeles was hardly the Pluto of the NHL before the Kings won the Stanley Cup. But center Mike Richards, who had played his entire career in Philadelphia, had no idea that Kopitar was so skilled when he arrived in Los Angeles via trade in 2011.
Richards played in the 2010 Olympics with Sidney Crosby for Team Canada. With the Flyers he had playoff battles against Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals. Sutter, of course, coached Jarome Iginla in Calgary during Iginla's prime.
So it is telling that Richards and Sutter have reached into their memory banks at different times about Kopitar and put him in the conversation with the NHL's leading men.
"You watch shows on the NHL Network and top five forwards, he doesn't even get [mentioned] just because he is in L.A.," Richards said. "If he played in New York, he'd get talked about like Crosby and Ovechkin…. And he's got the knack for defense for stealing pucks like Datsyuk, stealing pucks and never being in the wrong position."
Kopitar stands to get a substantial upgrade in terms of exposure this season for multiple reasons, including playing for his native Slovenia in Sochi, Russia, at the Winter Olympic Games.
"I never even heard about him in the East," Richards said. "This year playing against every Eastern Conference team, I think it's going to be good for him and the recognition he finally deserves, and the Olympics.
"He'll finally get the spotlight he deserves."
Richards thought about the modest Kopitar, and added another thought, saying: "Not that he wants it."