As Kings celebrate Kopitar milestones, trade for Dubois looks worse by the day – Orange County Register

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The Kings will commemorate the quartet of milestones Anze Kopitar has reached this season in a sort of aggregated pregame ceremony before they take on the Buffalo Sabres Wednesday night.

At this moment, that almost feels cruel, as the Kings careen through a skid with just two wins in their past 13 games, producing the fifth-worst point total in the NHL, and the worst of any presently playoff-bound club, since Dec. 28.

“I think it’s always better when you win eight in a row than when you lose eight in a row. I’m going to enjoy it, but, at the end of the day, it’s a game we’re trying to win, and we need points,” Kopitar told reporters Tuesday.

Even the ever-humble king of Kings has been touched by the Pierre-Luc Dubois trade, the eight-year octopus of a commitment whose tentacles cannot stop sliming up every area of the Kings’ campaign.

Kopitar has been playing hurt, as could be effectively confirmed by three non-answers from General Manager Rob Blake and Coach Todd McLellan last week, or a single set of eyes. He has no points in his past five games –– despite playing an absurd 46 minutes combined in losses to Nashville and the NHL’s worst team, San Jose –– and he hasn’t found the net in a dozen matches. He was scoring more than a point per game before tailing off abruptly.

At a time when the Kings’ ability to finish chances feels damned by a vengeful deity, their captain appears all but physically incapable of shooting the puck. He’s had three shots on net just once in 2024, but endured two games with none at all. Meanwhile, the most hyped Kings’ team in a decade is clinging to a wild-card spot just past the midway mark, representing a plummet from their once-leveraged position.

“I wouldn’t say the season’s slipping away, but I would say that there is concern and that there is frustration, definitely frustration,” McLellan said after the consternating loss to the Sharks.

For Kopitar, 36, more than just the season may be filtering swiftly through the hourglass, as he toils fruitlessly for an organization buried in a deep pit whose sides are greased up by a lack of roster and salary flexibility to climb out of it.

That’s thanks in part to other recent front-office flubs (lest one forget the Cal Petersen fiasco, which the Kings are still effectively paying for) but mostly it’s the result of a generous deal for Dubois, who was supposed to spell and maybe even eventually replace Kopitar. He, perhaps ironically, shares an agent with Kopitar who has deep connections to the Kings’ brass: Blake, team president Luc Robitaille and senior advisor Marc Bergevin.

Robitaille was at least twice asked about the roles of Bergevin as well as the agent, Pat Brisson, in the Dubois acquisition and extension. Once, he responded flippantly to The Athletic’s Eric Stephens by saying “If it were (the case), we’d have many more great players that (Brisson) represents playing for us.”

On another occasion, Robitaille told the Forum Report’s Jon Rosen in more macabre terms that there was no influence from Bergevin, who arrived to the organization after being fired as GM by the Montreal Canadiens organization, which had been linked to the Quebecois Dubois in the rumor mill previously.

“Absolutely not true,” Robitaille told Rosen, adding, “I swear to you on my kids and my parents.”

“We sat in the room, and the entire hockey department was like, ‘yes, he can help us.’”

Regardless of any management dynamics, soldiering on is nothing new for Kopitar, a man who deserves more respect than to be in the situation he is in today, though he’d be too loyal and understated to ever demand it publicly.

As he’s supposedly been better supported, especially by other big centers like Dubois and center-to-wing-and-back-to-center convert Quinton Byfield, he remains a heavy-minute player in all situations. That even as his body appeared to beg for a respite that finally came in the form of a maintenance day on Tuesday, weeks after his hurt began to show.

Kopitar was even magnanimous and stately during a news conference Tuesday, offering mitigating observations about Dubois but ultimately acknowledging to reporters that the team “brought (Dubois) in to be a game-breaker, and he knows that.”

Kopitar has already marched through countless grueling battles, some glorious, others completely pointless, with the exact same warrior’s mentality.

Having bided patiently through a rebuilding period that jettisoned comrade after comrade from the Stanley Cup-winning teams of 2012 and 2014 – the last time the Kings won a playoff series – he stayed fit and focused, waiting for another chance to see his reflection in gleaming silver.

Jeff Carter’s departure in 2021 was received roughly by the team’s veterans, but that was partly because morale was already at an all-time low as a shortened campaign still had a full season’s worth of defeats. Last year, as the team was making a sharp ascent, Blake traded Jonathan Quick in the dead of night, dimming Kopitar’s mood to pitch black even after an exhilarating overtime win in which he scored four goals.

The move was made for Joonas Korpisalo, who produced the same result Quick did a year earlier in one less game, a first-round loss to Edmonton (who, by the way, has won its last 13 games) before departing in free agency. Quick’s return on Saturday appeared to intimate that no involved party was fully over his departure, even if he had gone on to be part of two more successful teams since.

Over the summer, Blake purported to be doing Kopitar some sort of service by acquiring Dubois in a deal that effectively cost them emergent two-way star Gabe Vilardi, Kopitar-approved glue guy Alex Iafallo, former first-rounder Rasmus Kupari and second power-play unit quarterback Sean Durzi (he was traded for a draft pick that was flipped to Winnipeg, who, by the way, is leading the Central Division).

Durzi, who stood up for his teammates with three fights in two months as a rookie despite being a skill player and who was immensely popular in the locker room, found out he was dumped while setting up for a large family function. He had organized it for his parents’ own milestone, 25 years of marriage. He’s fared just fine in Arizona, expanding his role and his production alike, while remaining an integral player in terms of character, even without close friend Phillip Danault by his side.

Make no mistake, Blake and his staff brought in character players like Durzi and Danault, as well as leading goal-scorer Trevor Moore, the currently injured Viktor Arvidsson and sublimely talented Kevin Fiala. Their games took off relative to expectations, and the front office rightfully earned credit for those shrewd pickups.

But, by contrast, Dubois’s tenure has approached an extinction-level event, transforming promise into panic amid the fan base.

The fact that he was reported by Hockey Royalty’s Russell Morgan as the first player on the ice at practice Tuesday won’t deodorize a stench worse than sweaty hockey equipment left in the rain. He keeps moving across lines and positions with the same results that have transformed his acquisition from somewhat questionable to highly conspicuous.

For the exorbitant price of $8.5 million a year, the Kings have an offense-first (and second and third) player in a 20-way tie for 236th in scoring. Even Calgary’s much-maligned acquisition and signing, Jonathan Huberdeau, who makes $2 million more per year than Dubois, has been a better dollar-to-point value. Both players seem to be playing a melancholic game, with their teams’ middling fortunes and the Kings’ overall soullessness reflecting as much.

Dubois’s uninterested play, such as when he completely bagged a shift to force a trade from Columbus, were already red flags for such a heavy investment. In addition to the relationship’s ripple effect on the roster, his blase play may well be causing disaffection, as such a move was hardly consistent with the Kings’ values.

Certainly there was not the level of on-ice malaise and lack of intensity seen from Dubois and his predecessor in Rob Blake’s big-swing-and-huge-miss moves, Ilya Kovalchuk, under Blake’s own predecessors.  GM Dean Lombardi and Coach Darryl Sutter even got some inspired play from the oafish Dustin Penner. Yet the two two-time champions were replaced after the only two Cup lifts in franchise history because they were no longer meeting the standards they elevated like Atlas holding up the earth.

Dubois has not been a “three-zone” player as he was billed, nor has he been tough to play against, nor has he resembled in any way a man befitting of filling Kopitar’s shoes one day.

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