Kopitar and Kings finally turning promise into success

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It's been over 13 years since the Los Angeles Kings traded Wayne Gretzky away to the St. Louis Blues. Ever since, the former franchise has tried unsuccessfully to regain the excitement for hockey that the "Great One" brought to the City of Angels.

The high point came in the spring of 1993, when Gretzky led LA to the Stanley Cup Finals only to watch Montreal claim the title in five games. While the Kings are still a long distance from making another run to hockey's biggest stage, the club finally has turned the corner in the rebuilding process.

LA has waited patiently -- too patiently as far as Kings fans are concerned -- to work its way back into a relevant hockey franchise.

The Kings haven't made the postseason since 2002 and with just three playoff appearances in the last 15 seasons, LA has been able to stockpile a slew of high draft picks over the years. The strategy finally seems to be paying off, as the Kings are 9-4-2 and fourth in the Western Conference with 20 points.

Leading the way in LA's youth movement has been Anze Kopitar, who at 22 years old is already in the midst of his fourth NHL campaign.

Anze Kopitar is currently leading the NHL with 24 points in his first 15 games of the season.
Kopitar was the 11th overall pick in the 2005 draft, and the Slovenian has provided solid offensive production since recording 61 points during his rookie campaign of 2006-07. This year, Kopitar has finally begun to gain some well-deserved recognition as a result of his sizzling start to the season.

Kopitar is currently leading the NHL with 24 points (11 goals, 13 assists) in his first 15 games of the season. It seems that the centerman is beginning to put both his size (6-4, 220 pounds) and skill together to become one of the Western Conference's most dominating offensive forces. Kopitar is also unique in the fact that he is first and only Slovenian to have ever played in the NHL.

Think of Kopitar as a poor-man's Evgeni Malkin, who unlike Kopitar was able to dominate the competition the first time he stepped on an NHL rink. It may have taken Kopitar longer to develop, but the Kings now know they have a tremendous talent at their disposal for many years to come.

While Kopitar brings a great deal of offensive firepower to the Kings, Dustin Brown delivers as a leader. The youngest captain in franchise history began wearing the "C" prior to last season and, at 25 years of age, he is still improving as an offensive player.

Brown, the 13th overall pick by LA in 2003, leads by example and can alter the momentum of a game with his ability to deliver huge body checks. In his first four full NHL campaigns, Brown has averaged 22 goals and nearly 47 points per season. He has four goals and nine assists this season, but LA would like Brown to regain the goal-scoring form that allowed him to light the lamp a career-high 33 times in 2007-08.

Going even further back, the Kings selected Alexander Frolov with the 20th overall pick in 2000. Although the 27-year-old Russian has struggled with his consistency, he is still a solid offensive contributor for LA.

Frolov seemed to reach his high point with 35 goals and 71 points in 2006-07, watching his production drop off in consecutive seasons with 67 points in 2007-08 and 59 last year. He has four goals and eight assists this year.

On defense, the Kings boast a pair of blueliners who were selected in the top three picks of their respective drafts. Drew Doughty was taken second overall by LA in 2008, while Jack Johnson was the third overall pick in 2005 by Carolina, before being dealt to the Kings prior to the 2006-07 season.

Doughty, 19, and Johnson, 22, both display poise beyond their years and are being called on to lead the Kings blueline. The duo is getting more ice time than anybody else on the roster, as both are averaging over 23 minutes per night.

The play of 23-year-old goaltender Jonathan Quick has also been promising. Although Quick was a third-round selection and not a blue-chip prospect like the players mentioned above, he has shown the ability to be a steady NHL goaltender. The Connecticut native claimed the No. 1 job by going 21-18-2 in 44 games last year, and has posted a 9-3-2 mark so far in 2009-10.

Kings general manager Dean Lombardi took his current job in 2006 after most of LA's youthful talent was already drafted, but he has helped the club in making the transition from reclamation project to playoff contender. He has slowly mixed in veteran talent to the Kings roster, and made a few decisions in the last calendar year to really improve his club.

The Kings' biggest move came when they dealt defensemen Kyle Quincey and Tom Preissing, along with a fifth-round draft pick in 2010, to Colorado for veteran winger Ryan Smyth, who has proven to be a perfect complement to Kopitar. Smyth is second on LA in both goals (8) and points (19) this season.

Lombardi also traded for an injured Justin Williams at last year's deadline, and the speedy winger has helped the cause with four goals and six assists in 10 games.

Yet despite the improved product on the ice, the Kings are still struggling to draw fans to the Staples Center. Since drawing an average of 17,889 fans a night in 2003-04, LA's attendance has gone down every year and so far in 2009-10 the club is averaging a crowd of 15,971 per game. That shows the Kings have work to do in the marketing department, as they try to fight for attention in a city that offers plenty of non-hockey distractions for its residents.

While Lombardi has helped supplement the Kings' talented corps with veterans, his club is still far from competing for a Stanley Cup title. The next few years, however, will be key in restoring interest in the club, as LA tries to go through a hockey renaissance similar to the one that has made the Blackhawks a hot ticket in Chicago once again.

It's been a long time coming, but the Kings are starting to give hockey fans in LA something to cheer about.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Dan Di Sciullo at ddisciullo@sportsnetwork.com.
Dan Di Sciullo
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