That’s probably not what most people would have bet on after Evgeni Malkin returned from injury in October and came out of the gates going gangbusters.
But the 19-year-old Kopitar has consistently produced since the beginning of the season and his 23 points (6-17) are one ahead of Malkin’s 22 (12-10).
Yes, Malkin has played seven fewer games, but that’s not Kopitar’s fault. What’s interesting, though, is that many people expected Malkin to have left all the other rookies in his dust fairly quickly. Kopitar is still hanging in.
“Malkin is a great player,” Kopitar said this week from Los Angeles. “I’ll try to give him a little competition, though.”
The Kings centre insists, however, that the Calder Trophy is not burning up hard-drive space in his mind.
“It’s not really that I think about the rookie of the year,” Kopitar said. “Of course, If I get rewarded at the end it would make me really glad.”
He’s the first and only player from Slovenia to ever play in the NHL and he’s born in 1987, but Kopitar doesn’t sound like he’s wet behind the ears.
His English, for starters, is real good. He’s also oozing calm and confidence over the phone line.
“He’s mature for a 19-year-old boy,” said Kings head coach Marc Crawford. “He lived on his own for two years in Sweden and I think that made him mature very quickly. He’s using that maturity to handle the life out here in the NHL.
“He hasn’t shown any signs that he’s overwhelmed at all.”
Kopitar, whose first name is pronounced AN-zheh, played for Sodertalje’s junior team in Sweden in 2004-05 and then graduated to the senior team in the Swedish Elite League last season.
“That was a big help, playing in one of the top leagues in Europe,” said Kopitar. “It was a great experience for me there. They treated me well.”
Still, the Kings, in particular GM Dean Lombardi, didn’t have him pegged for the big club this season. The original belief was that he’d need further seasoning.
“Our original plan was to start him in Manchester,” said Crawford. “Dean felt really strongly that he needed to play in the American League, needed to ride the bus and learn all the things that the American League is so good at teaching players about professional hockey.
“But it became very apparent in training camp that he was going to be very impactful for us. And that’s definitely been the case. A lot of nights he’s been our best centre.”
Kopitar came to camp determined. No buses for him.
“It was up to me to show the coaches and the staff here that I could play in the big league,” said Kopitar. “I felt really confident and just played the way that I can.”
Crawford’s first real glimpse of Kopitar was the Kings’ developmental camp for prospects last summer.
“He was the best player there but he wasn’t that much ahead of everybody,” said Crawford. “But he came to training camp and it was like: ‘Wow, holy cow. This guy’s taken a big step in the space of 10 weeks.’ He came here very much with the purpose of making this team. He wanted to play in the National Hockey League and for that happened he needed a great camp. And he did just that.
“He’s done nothing but show us something new and he’s improved his play almost on a daily basis.”
But 23 points, second in team scoring, for a 19-year-old?
“I don’t think I was expecting that,” said Kopitar. “When I came into camp I was just trying to impress the staff to make the team. I never imagined it would go like this. But right now I really feel confident on the ice.”
Lombardi and Crawford have the long-term view for the Kings. It’s about building a foundation now and a winner later. With that in mind, Kopitar leads all Kings forwards with 20:01 minutes of ice time per game.
“We’ve used him in every situation,” said Crawford.
Off the ice, Kopitar says he’s adjusted well to life in Hollywood. He lived alone during his two years in Sweden so he’s decided to do the same this season even though the Kings offered to find him a family to live with.
He’s also found a fellow Slovene to hang out with in 22-year-old Sasha Vujacic of the Los Angeles Lakers.
“We talk a lot, he’s a really nice guy,” said Kopitar. “He kind of shows me around here so that helps me a lot.
“It’s always nice to talk in my own language, too, so it was nice meeting him.”
They’re proud of him back home in Slovenia, a country that has only more than 100 or so adult hockey players.
“I think it’s pretty big right now back home,” said Kopitar. “I’m really glad to have made the NHL and hopefully some young kids back home are going to start playing hockey.”