LOS ANGELES—How do you replace a player the caliber of Anze Kopitar?
The answer: You don’t. Not with two weeks remaining in the regular season and the Stanley Cup playoffs knocking at the door.
Kopitar came into Saturday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche leading the Kings in goals and assists. He left Staples Center on the back of a utility cart, his fractured right ankle wrapped in a soft cast and his eyes fixed in a downcast stare.
Kopitar, the team’s lone All-Star this season, will be out a minimum of six weeks, joining second-leading scorer Justin Williams on the bench for at least the rest of the regular season. Williams suffered a dislocated right shoulder Monday against the visiting Calgary Flames and is out a minimum of 3-4 weeks.
Some home stand, huh?
If the Kings are going to finish their playoff run—they remain fifth in the West after Saturday’s win—they’ll need a bench full of players to step up their game.
Players like Oscar Moller, who was called up from the team’s AHL affiliate in Manchester earlier in the week following Williams’ diagnosis and could end up inheriting Kopitar’s top-line center position.
Then there’s Trevor Lewis, who scored a goal in the third period against the Avalanche, his third of the season. Kings coach Terry Murray said Lewis will be a great player “once his hands catch up with his foot speed.”
And you shouldn’t overlook Wayne Simmonds, Alexei Ponikarovsky or Michal Handzus, each of whom have seen their offensive numbers plummet this season. Simmonds had 40 points last season but 27 this season. Ponikarovsky scored at least 20 goals in five of the last six seasons but has just five. Handzus has had at least 20 goals five times in his career but currently sits at 10.
“Everybody knows what needs to be done,” Ponikarovsky. “For us, it doesn’t change anything, we’ll just have to play our game and score some goals.”
In reality, the entire team will need to bump up their play on both ends of the ice if they have any chance of reaching the playoffs and bettering last season’s first-round exit.
“It’s an opportunity for someone else to step up,” said Kings captain Dustin Brown. “It’s going to be tough to match Kopi’s play, both defensively and offensively, but we’ve got to find a way.”
The Kings are built around a defensive premise. Protect your own zone and the offense will come. They’re seventh in the league in goals-against average and fourth on the penalty kill.
Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier have evolved into one of the top goalkeeper tandems in the NHL.
“You’re going to have rely on your team play, absolutely,” Murray said. “Everybody is going to have to elevate their game.”
The Kings are taking Sunday off and then flying to Edmonton on Monday morning for a game Tuesday against the last-place Oilers. The extent of the latest injuries might not be felt by until the Kings board the plane and Kopitar and Williams aren’t in their usual seats. How quickly there absence will be felt on the ice is not as certain.