30 Thoughts: Kopitar deal priority for Kings

Anze Kopitar (Carlson/AP)

There’s on-ice business and off-ice business. In Los Angeles, nothing is more important than the latter, with the organization trying to win its third Stanley Cup in four years.

This season is a little different, as Dean Lombardi works to solidify the roster while the players work to handle the puck. Two important defencemen — Alec Martinez and Jake Muzzin — are now locked-in long-term. They are trying to find common ground with Justin Williams, the 2014 Conn Smythe Trophy winner. Still to come are negotiations with the likes of Kyle Clifford, Martin Jones, Tanner Pearson, Jarret Stoll, Tyler Toffoli…

And Anze Kopitar.

Kopitar is under contract for one more year at $6.8 million. The Kings can extend him come July 1 (just like Tampa with Steven Stamkos), and he’s just as important to Manhattan Beach as Stamkos is to Clearwater. No one expects this to be a problem, as Kopitar is happy in Los Angeles and the team recognizes his exponential value.

Monday night against Toronto, he took a Dion Phaneuf shot off the face and barely missed any time. Like Jesse Ventura in Predator, he didn’t even have time to bleed.

As great as Kopitar is, he’s still somewhat under the radar. There are a couple reasons for it: the Kings are loaded with terrific players, and he’s not exactly a self-promoter. But, his peers recognize what he does.

At the 2014 Stanley Cup Final, Wayne Gretzky put him on-level with Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews as the best in the game in an interview with Ron MacLean. A few months ago, Mark Messier said the same thing at the Ottawa Celebrity Sports Dinner.

Of all the terrific things Kopitar’s done in the NHL, his most impressive performance might have been with Slovenia at the Sochi Olympics. He was their best player by a mile, and almost singlehandedly willed them to a top eight finish. It was a real revelation for me, because he wasn’t surrounded by elite talent and still made undeniable impact.

So, what does this all mean for the Kings? They are allowed to talk to Kopitar’s representation (Pat Brisson), but can’t formalize anything until the summer. With back-diving contracts no longer permitted, the obvious template is what Chicago did with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews — getting them under contract one year before they hit the market at $10.5 million per season.

Kopitar’s resume is right with Toews’. Number one centre on a two-time champion, a force at both ends of the ice. Signing Kane and Toews early gave the Blackhawks a nice public relations boost, eliminated distractions and, most importantly, allowed them to plan for the future. No doubt the Kings will see if Kopitar is willing to save them some cap room, but they’ve got to know this is a possible outcome, especially since Brisson also did the Kane/Toews deals.

The good news for LA is a few of their other cornerstones are locked-in long-term at reasonable numbers — Jeff Carter, Drew Doughty, Marian Gaborik among them. They can take harder lines (in the short-term) with Pearson and Toffoli, if necessary. They have very good prospects at AHL Manchester. But the Kopitar number is the biggest remaining decision, because it sets the course for years to come, and because other NHL teams like what the Kings have.

It’s a pretty common question: “What will the Kings do to make all of this work?” Kopitar’s next contract is the biggest piece of that puzzle.

30 THOUGHTS

1. Back to LA in a moment, but there was disappointment Sunday that Paul Kariya went skiing with his family instead of attending Teemu Selanne’s fantastic jersey retirement in Anaheim.

“That’s my next challenge, to get him back in hockey,” the Finnish Flash said afterwards.

Kariya taped a testimonial for the video screen, and got a loud cheer. The Ducks were ecstatic last season when he quietly agreed to do some community work for the organization, with one proviso: it stayed private, no media. Word is he still does it, even in a pinch when the mumps outbreak prevented current players from doing hospital visits.

Kariya was disappointed in hockey when he retired, angry that punishments for some of the headshots he received were too light. Hopefully he someday will be a visible ambassador for the game. But, it is going to be on his schedule and we’ve got to accept that.

2. Mike Richards played his 700th NHL game Monday night against Toronto, the start of an important stretch for him.

After falling to a season-low 9:07 of ice-time last Thursday against the Rangers, he played 14:32 and 14:22 the past two games, his best back-to-back totals since mid-November. He also made a good defensive play to prevent a James van Riemsdyk scoring chance. Los Angeles needs him going with Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli out.

For all the talk about his contract, here’s what some teams look at: since he got to LA, he averages 0.53 points per game in the regular season; 0.61 during the playoffs. Even as a fourth-liner last spring, he still had 10 postseason points. His performance over the next few weeks could really dictate his future.

3. Ryan Suter gave Brian Leetch’s record for most minutes played during a season (2449:19) a good run in 2013-14, falling 37:25 shy. (Leetch played 29:52 a night in 1998-99 when he did it.) The Minnesota defenceman missed two games this season, which will prevent him from trying again, but let’s see how close Drew Doughty gets. Only Suter’s 29:35 is higher than Doughty’s 29:19 so far this year. But the King is trending upward, with four 30-minute games in his past six and eight in his past 13.

4. LA may not know Slava Voynov’s status until after the trade deadline, which complicates their plans.

A couple teams suspect one of their potential targets is Carolina’s Andrej Sekera. (It should be pointed out there is no guarantee he will be available, as the Hurricanes are attempting to sign him.) There is a connection: Sekera played for Los Angeles exec Michael Futa at OHL Owen Sound.

5. We’re still six weeks from the trade deadline, so anything can change. But it would be a shock if Eric Staal wished to go anywhere other than Raleigh during the regular season. Not even sure Carolina’s formally asked, but word is his stance hasn't altered. He wants to stay. And, if the Hurricanes get Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, isn’t Staal the perfect teacher?

6. With Jimmy Howard down until at least the All-Star break, Red Wings GM Ken Holland indicated he will run with Petr Mrazek and Thomas McCollum. There is a possibility Jonas Gustavsson is ready once play resumes, which eases the need for outside help.

Before the 2013-14 season, Mrazek played an exhibition game in Toronto. You could see the organization was very optimistic about his future. Big moment for him.

7. Evgeni Nabokov's strong career is in the balance after Monday's start, a 7-3 defeat to Philadelphia, where he could not finish the game.

Losses happen, but the bigger concern for Tampa is getting Ben Bishop nights off. The Lightning use uber-prospect Andrei Vasilevskiy in spurts — 1.76 goals against average, .937 save percentage — but three of his four starts were in the northeast, a short trip from AHL Syracuse.

GM Steve Yzerman is determined to ease him along. “He’s got a great attitude, but we want to be patient, selective with his NHL starts… He had some early struggles in AHL, but he’s figured it out — adjusting to life in North America, improving his English. We don’t have to throw him in there.”

The other Syracuse goalie is Kristers Gudlevskis, who nearly ruined the Sochi Olympics for Canada. If not either of them, Yzerman may need to look elsewhere. (As usual, no one named in this blog is used as an anonymous source.)

8. Will Vancouver become a player in any potential goalie roulette? Eddie Lack is unrestricted after next season. Jacob Markstrom is restricted this summer and won’t clear waivers again. Joacim Ericsson gives them depth and time to assess Thatcher Demko. Can’t see the Canucks helping someone like the Wild, since the two teams are in direct competition. But anyone else?

9. A couple of sources threw cold water on Minnesota’s interest in Cam Ward. Probably means they trade for him on Wednesday.

10. The heat is on Mike Yeo, but I think that would be a mistake.

Two years ago, everyone thought Jack Capuano was growing the Islanders into a force when they pushed Pittsburgh in the first round. Last year, everyone wanted him fired. Now they look great again.

Yeo and the Wild gave Chicago everything the Blackhawks could handle. This season is a nightmare due to mumps, slumps, goaltending misery, Thomas Vanek’s inability to fit and personal pain for Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. As Dave Nonis said last week, the coach is the easy thing to do, but, in this case, is it the right thing to do?

11. Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, asked what he's learned seeing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin up close: “Crosby is all about hockey. He’s thinking hockey 26 hours a day trying to make us better. Malkin is better than I thought, and I already thought he was great.”

12. Rutherford’s plan for the next little while is to wait.

“It’s been tough for us with the injuries, but I think we are harder to play against… able to win games every which way. We could play physical, with skill, have our goaltender win one, whatever game is happening every night.”

Now he wants to see what the team looks like when Patric Hornqvist returns after the All-Star Game. “Then I can see what is needed, if anything. Get a feel for it.”

13. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Dave Molinari reported Olli Maatta may miss the rest of the season with a shoulder injury.

Although there have been rumours about a Paul Martin trade, a couple other teams said they doubted it. The Penguins are in it to win it, and are a better team with him, even if he walks in the summer.

If you want one of their good, young blueline prospects — Brian Dumoulin, Scott Harrington or Derrick Pouliot — it won’t be easy, “because we know what we’ve got with them, and it’s hard to find,” Rutherford said. “I would prefer not to… If it makes the difference I would consider it, but if I don’t trade them, the Pittsburgh defence is set for a long time.”

He said Dumoulin and Harrington are ready to play full-time in the NHL. Pouliot? “I don’t want to get ahead of things with him,” the GM said, “but he is improving and getting closer.”

14. A lot of talk about Ryan O’Reilly in the last week or so. Another broadcaster said he heard an O’Reilly for Keith Yandle rumour, which, from a pure hockey standpoint, makes a lot of sense.

That fills a need for both Arizona and Colorado. However, there was skepticism from other teams that Coyotes GM Don Maloney would make this deal without assurance he could sign O’Reilly. Yandle is one of his best trade chips. To trade it for 125 or so games of the Avalanche forward doesn’t seem likely.

15. There were some wild rumours about Benoit Groulx jumping to the NHL in the aftermath of the World Juniors. Some of it came because he took an extra game off before rejoining QMJHL Gatineau, while some of it came because “for the last five years, reporters have been asking me, ‘When are you going to go back to the pros?’” he said last week. “There is nothing going on.”

He impressed at the event, we'll see where this goes next season.

16. One scout on David Desharnais: “Watch his even-strength usage.”

Among all Montreal forwards, he remains slightly above Tomas Plekanec for second on the club, but it is dropping. In the Canadiens’ last 10 games, he’s hit his average of 14:44 just four times. He had 11:38 in regulation last Saturday against Pittsburgh and 12:10 Jan. 2 in New Jersey.

17. Roman Polak wasn’t the only Maple Leaf questioning his teammates’ commitment to defence. “It’s not rocket science,” Stephane Robidas said last Wednesday, 24 hours after Randy Carlyle's dismissal.

“If you have to think of where you should go instead of knowing where you should be, you're always going to be a half-step behind. Teams move the puck too easily side-to-side against us. If they can complete that pass across the ice, you are always chasing… You have to create a culture of five guys together, always together, not one guy who is going to protect the house. That way, you force low-percentage shots from the outside and can say, ‘We did our job.’”

Toronto just allowed 20 or fewer shots in consecutive games for the first time in almost seven years. That’s a start; we’ll see if it continues.

18. Robidas, by the way, had a good story about coaching his son, Justin, who is preparing to play in the famous Quebec Pee-Wee Tournament.

“He didn’t want me to be involved,” the defenceman said. “He didn’t want the other kids to think he only made the the team because of me.” Later, Justin relented a little. “He told me I could coach the defence,” Stephane laughed, “because he's a forward.”

19. Canadian teams badly need top talents who can either insulate themselves from or embrace the intense spotlight of playing here.

Vancouver’s got the Sedins, Calgary is led by Mark Giordano, Montreal has Carey Price (who grew into it) and PK Subban.

Phil Kessel is also a prominent member of this group, generally not caring what’s said about him. However, according to a couple teammates and coach Peter Horachek (who mentioned he spoke to Kessel about it), last week was the first time things off the ice got to him.

A one-time crack in the armour is not a big deal, everyone gets frustrated. You figure he’ll get back to normal, but let’s see if there’s any lingering emotion.

20. Best Horachek story from last week: The new Toronto coach captained Darren Pang in Saginaw during the 1985-86 and 1986-87 seasons. “A great captain,” Pang said, “even at 2 am when I called to tell him four of us just got beat up outside a bar.”

The goalie told him, “We’ve been hit.” Horachek answered, “Oh no, not your BMW!” Pang replied, “No, my face.” Evidently, he got everyone out of trouble.

21. Randy Carlyle would have been a contender for the Florida job, if he’d been available.

He’s got a long history with Winnipeg, but revealed two years ago he did not want to go there in a senior capacity, because he thought it would have been unfair to Claude Noel. “The moment they lost three games in a row, there would have been speculation,” he said.

22. Kevin Klein had 17 goals in 433 games entering this season, where he’s got eight in 38.

Offence is not foreign to him. In 2003-04, he scored 10 goals in 22 OHL playoff games. He also had 10 in his second full AHL season. But this is really something, shooting 18 per cent.

“Dan Girardi was touching my stick the other day, hoping some of my luck would rub off on him,” Klein said. He added that, earlier in the season, coach Alain Vigneault came up to him, claiming he was under pressure to put Klein on the power-play.

“I told him, ‘You just keep doing what you’re doing, I’ll just keep scoring at even-strength,’” Klein said with a laugh. “You don’t take off Dan Boyle for me.”

23. The Rangers have the best goal-differential in the Eastern Conference (fourth overall) after an impressive 3-0 California sweep. “You win two out of three on a trip like that, and you feel successful,” Klein said.

New York looks fast, with Klein saying the presence of Carl Hagelin, Chris Kreider and Ryan McDonagh allows the team to take it to another level.

“Those guys are amazing. It only takes them two or three strides to get up to top speed. They are difference makers, because you can chip it over to their side or ahead to get them going. That’s tough to defend.”

24. By now, you’ve probably seen the Kreider swimming pool video.

Klein says he’s never watched it, but witnessed the forward doing one-legged box jumps and was blown away. “They stack the boxes, and (Kreider) could still do it. Ridiculous.”

25. Washington is getting its money’s worth from Braden Holtby, he of the 25 straight appearances.

It helps that the Capitals, who used 14 defensemen last season (only three of whom played 70 games), needed just seven so far, with four playing every night.

Aside from the obvious advantages, Holtby added there’s much more consistency to what happens in front of him. Even though he’s only known Brooks Orpik four months, “I know if he’s not going to block a shot, he’s going right to the stick of anyone who might try to get the rebound. He’s really good at that.”

26. That led to a discussion about shot-blocking in general.

Holtby is so-so on sliding, but despises the hunched-over crouch with no knees on the ice. “You’re getting smaller in front of the shooter, but still screening the goalie.”

He likes the way Jay Beagle does it: one-knee down. Beagle says the two talk about it quite a bit, and he's not big on sliding either, since ex-teammate Dennis Wideman made him look foolish on one this season. The danger of the knee-down is you are vulnerable. Beagle fingered what he called “a worm” in his thigh from getting hit. Not as gross as it sounds, but not pretty.

27. Has Barry Trotz changed at all? “No,” says Joel Ward, who played for him in Nashville. “After meetings, he still says, ‘Now go play that Devil music.’”

28. Big conference call on Tuesday between the NHL, NHLPA and IIHF. The hope is the World Cup gets announced at the All-Star weekend.

Sounds like the deal is close to done, but you never know with this group.

The AHL All-Star game overlaps, and it’s possible the new West Division is announced there. The Rochester Democrat & Chronicle’s Kevin Oklobzija reported the season will be shortened from 76 games. Another consideration is the East teams playing more games than the West, because travel is easier.

29. Buffalo retires Dominik Hasek’s number 39 on Tuesday night. Hasek was the best practice player I ever watched. No one hated getting scored on more than he did.

I’ve told this story before, but it makes sense to repeat on this day: during his time in Ottawa, the Senators were working on the shootout. As in games, no one could score on rebounds. Brian McGrattan did it a couple of times, and Hasek got mad. He told the forward not to do it again. When McGrattan did, legend goes that Hasek did not let him score in practice for the rest of the season.

30. Thanks for all the comments about my poker acumen from the NHL Alumni Tournament shown on Sportsnet 360.

Special mention to the coach who texted, “Well, I suppose you can check ‘poker playing’ off the list as a career after broadcasting… how do I contact Sportsnet to have this taken off the air!”

No excuses. First televised tournament and was nervous. Looking forward to another shot.