ISS – Anze Kopitar
Height: 6’2″ Weight: 202
Slovenia might not be regarded internationally as a hockey nation, yet one of the best forwards eligible in 2005 hails from this small Balkan country. With a population of approximately two million people, Slovenia has yet to produce a notable pro player. According to International Scouting Services (ISS) Director of Scouting, Dennis MacInnis, that is all set to change with Anze Kopitar.
The 6’2 center hails from the city of Jesenice near Slovenia’s northwest border to Austria. Kopitar developed his skills in both the nation’s senior and junior leagues. In thirty junior games, Kopitar racked up 60 points and even more impressively, he played 21 games with senior club Casino Kranjska Gora and tallied 15 goals and a dozen helpers for 27 points.
ISS’s European scouts first acknowledged Kopitar as a rising star after his huge performance at the January 2003, European Youth Olympic Festival in Bled, Slovenia. Then again at the 2004 U-18 Division I World Championship, in Austria, Kopitar impressed scouts with his uncanny ability to lead, finishing third in scoring with six goals and two assists and leading Slovenia to a second place finish. The year was such a breakout for Kopitar that at one point he was even seriously considered for the men’s National team as well despite his young age.
“The head coach wanted to call me for one tournament in Slovenia because the National team in the first division had tough competition,” explained Kopitar who speaks nearly flawless English. “He wanted to call me but my father said it was a little bit too early for me.”
Anze’s father, Matjaz Kopitar, should know what’s best for his son; he’s an assistant coach for that same senior National team. After the success of 2003-04 Kopitar began searching for new challenges and his quest lead him to Sweden where he now skates for the Södertälje junior team. Head coach Per Nygårds is a big promoter of his import star player and, coming from a man of his position and experience, that is quite an endorsement.
“I think he’s the best junior player I’ve had and I used to coach the 19-year-old National team, and I coach the 17-year-old National team now,” said the bench boss. “I think Anze has fantastic potential. He has size, fantastic hockey sense, a really good shot, he’s good on face-offs and positioning; he’s more or less a complete package.”
Nevertheless there are areas of Kopitar’s game that have room for improvement. But both he and his coach are aware of what they are and they have focused on those areas during training.
“He competes hard but he needs to get better frequency with his legs,” explained the coach. “With more strength, he’ll be able to get more power through every stride. And if he can move his feet faster he can get in more strides in a shorter amount of time and he’ll be even more difficult for opponents.”
Because of his nationality, Kopitar has flown under the radar of many scouts who may not normally venture to his homeland in search of hockey players. Now that he is located in Sweden and playing in the same organization as fellow draft notables Nicklas Bergfors and Tom Wandell, scouts will have no choice but to see him play. Kopitar is drawing comparisons to Nik Antropov partly because he also hails from a lesser-known hockey country, but there are some who claim the Slovenian has a little Dany Heatley in him as well.
One quality Kopitar possesses that can’t be seen on the ice is his character. Miles away from his family, friends and home for the first time, Kopitar has settled into life in Sweden now after a short period of adjustment. At just 17 years of age, and just barely qualifying for draft eligibility, Kopitar dreams of one day playing in the NHL like his boyhood idol Sergei Federov.
“Of course I want to play NHL!” he laughed when asked the question.
“I think right now he’s good on the big rink where he has a little more time and he can play; he’s quite tactical,” said Nygaards. “Anze uses his size in a positive way so I’m sure he could play very well (in North America) also. If you compare him to all the 17 year olds in the world, I’d say he’s got to be one of the top players.”
Already this year Kopitar is off to a quick start scoring at better than a goal per game pace. The NHL team that can put aside any concerns because of Slovenia’s unproven track record could escape the draft with a real steal. In many ways, Kopitar could become his country’s NHL pioneer.