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46-27-9 (3rd in Pacific); lost in first round to Canucks
D Willie Mitchell, LW Alexei Ponikarovsky
LW Alexander Frolov, D Randy Jones, D Sean O'Donnell
IT IS NOT uncommon to overpay in Los Angeles, but the price of one winger, Ilya Kovalchuk, proved too steep even by Hollywood standards. In walking away from the pricey Russian sniper, Kings G.M. Dean Lombardi chose to put even more faith in the team that brought the playoffs back to L.A. for the first time since 2002. Left unsaid was the fact that Lombardi was also putting his faith in first-line center Anze Kopitar (below), who led the Kings with a career-high 34 goals and 81 points last year.
The 6'3", 226-pound pivot now seems ready to emerge as one of the league's elite forwards. Skating with wingers Ryan Smyth and Justin Williams on one of the league's best lines early last season, the 23-year-old Kopitar ignited an offense that scored 231 goals, 29 more than the season before when the Kings' attack ranked 27th in the NHL. He also committed himself to working hard at both ends, finishing the season +6 (the first time he's finished in the black).
Of course, his success comes with a fresh set of challenges. "It's going to be harder," Kopitar says. "There will be more pressure because it's more expected for us now to win and perform. That's the challenge, and I think we have a group capable of [meeting it]."