In less than a month, the Los Angeles Kings and Anze Kopitar will be able to open negotiations over a contract extension to potentially keep the star center in Los Angeles for the remainder of his career. While there is little doubt both sides have a keen interest in forging an agreement, the cap-strapped Kings — already facing flexibility issues with a large number of long-term deals on the books — will need to figure out how to sign their franchise centerman without being forced to break up the core of the team.
It won’t be easy. There has been quiet speculation about a new contract that could carry a cap hit in excess of $10 million. After all, Jonathan Toews has that kind of deal, and with a comparable resume, many believe Kopitar deserves a similar contract.
Will he get it?
Kopitar’s cap hit is currently $6.8 million
Back when the Great Recession was still a twinkle in the Federal Reserve’s eye, a dynamic 21-year old center from Jesenice, Slovenia named Anze Kopitar inked a splashy seven-year, $47.6 million contract extension, at the time the second-longest in team history. The signing locked up the emerging star through the 2015-16 season.
“This agreement is another critical step forward in our building process, and it also demonstrates to our fans our organization’s commitment to building the right way,” said Kings GM Dean Lombardi after the deal was announced. “However, we are not done. There is still more work to do, on and off the ice.”
Kopitar was instrumental in the rise of the Kings
Lombardi was correct on all counts. Securing the future of Kopitar was indeed critical, as the franchise desperately needed an anchor during the deliberate process of building what would eventually become a championship team.
Lombardi rebuilt that championship team piece by critical piece. He cemented the team’s future by selecting Drew Doughty second overall in 2008 and trading for Mike Richards and Jeff Carter in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Coupled with the emergence of goaltender Jonathan Quick, the acquisition of right winger Justin Williams in 2009 and a few other key pieces, the Kings won their first Stanley Cup championship in 2012.
As important as these moves were to the success of the franchise — Los Angeles made the Western Conference Finals the following year and won the Cup again in 2014 — arguably none were more important than the retention of their franchise center.
The ‘franchise center’ label
There is no consensus definition of the term ‘franchise center’, but if there were, Kopitar’s picture might be affixed to it. Still just 27 years old, Kopitar rarely gets injured (he’s played in all 82 games five times), is always in the Selke conversation , and is nearly a point-per-game player despite being one of the most defensively responsible forwards in the league.
Like most great players, he rises to the occasion when his team needs him the most. While Los Angeles was mounting a furious playoff drive this past season, he played some of his most inspired hockey, scoring 20 points over his final 22 games. Rewind to the two Cup-winning playoff runs and Kopitar was a potent, consistent offensive force, scoring at a consistent point-per-game clip.
The 2014-15 season
The knock on Kopitar is that as good as he’s been, he suffers through significant stretches where his offensive production disappears.
More of a natural playmaker than a goal scorer, Kopitar can still light the lamp, having averaged 29 goals between 2007-08 and 2011-12. He netted 29 as recently as two seasons ago. That being said, every year he goes through protracted dry spells, usually spelling trouble for his team in the process. As I wrote back in November:
In 2013-14, Kopitar had two periods of ten straight games (October 3rd to October 21st and January 2nd to January 31st) where he was unable to score a goal. In 2012-13, he did not light the lamp in the final 16 games of the year, and in 20111-12, he had stretches of 17 and nine games without a goal. As good as he is, he has a documented history of going through long dry spells, and not just in goals scored.
During the 2014-15 season, Kopitar had stretches of eight, ten and eleven games without scoring a goal.
The Kings and Kopitar should negotiate a five-year, $47.5 million deal
Despite a below-average 2014-15 campaign, there is no firm evidence to suggest that Kopitar’s play is on the decline. Yes, he needs to shoot the puck more (his 134 shots last year were a career low for a full season) and the goal-less droughts need to be minimized, but nearly point-per-game caliber centers with above average speed and elite defensive skiils are few and far between.
Jonathan Toews is one. Anze Kopitar is most certainly another.
A five-year, $47.5 million contract would put Kopitar’s AAV within striking distance of Toews, and a five-year term provides a measure of flexibility for both sides. The argument in favor of this kind of deal are the benefits of keeping the team together, staying in the California sun, the endorsement opportunities Hollywood provides making up the difference and a slight nod toward his tough 2014-15 campaign. The arguments against are simple: Toews’ eight-year, $84 million pact.
The Kings should resist adding the inflexibility of an eight year contract to the payroll, even for someone of Kopitar’s stature. Already struggling with the bloated Mike Richards and Dustin Brown deals, five would make far more sense for the Kings.
But would that work for Kopitar? Leave your thoughts below or send a message to @McLaughlinWalt.