Despite only becoming true Stanley Cup contenders by bolstering their center depth in the summer of 2011, the Los Angeles Kings’ fate this season and beyond rests upon the performance of a defenseman.
Anze Kopitar is a puck-possession maven and Selke Trophy-caliber pivot, Jeff Carter is as natural a goal scorer as you’ll find in the Western Conference and Mike Richards is a do-it-all warrior, but Drew Doughty is the team’s most valuable player. He's the individual who will make or break L.A.’s championship hopes.
Moreover, he might be the best all-around defenseman in the world.
Those who rely on box scores will scoff at this notion. After all, he’s 20th in defenseman scoring this season (30 points in 59 games). However, he plays within the single worst offensive system in the league. Though the Kings are actually 29th in goals per game, the talent on their roster—featuring Kopitar, Carter, Richards, Dustin Brown, Justin Williams and Slava Voynov, among others—suggests they should be in the upper half of the NHL in this department.
Instead, just about every player on the club with offensive ability has seen his production dwindle—some have seen it grind to a halt.
On the flip side, Doughty anchors the league’s best defense (2.10 goals against per game) in spite of an aging core that features injury-prone Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene as well as struggling 24-year-old Slava Voynov.
He's largely been paired with mistake-happy youngster Jake Muzzin to boot. No elite blueliner is saddled with this kind of defensive albatross.
Granted, Muzzin shows promise. He can skate, he can hit, he likes to get involved on the attack. Conversely, he frequently puts himself in compromising situations with poor pinches at the offensive blue line and routinely turns the puck over when the opposition dials up a forecheck.
Through all that, Doughty remains one of the league’s finest puck-possession defensemen.
He currently ranks second in the NHL behind pairmate Muzzin—Brent Burns plays as a forward in San Jose—in On-Ice Corsi (shot attempt differential between a player’s team and the opposition per 60 minutes) with a rating of 18.83.
Those who follow the Kings will be quick to point out that he’d be the leader in this category had he not suited up alongside Robyn Regehr for the first 20 games of 2013-14. Regehr is rugged and can still defend reasonably well at 33 years of age, but he treats the puck like a grenade, as evidenced by his team-worst (among d-men) On-Ice Corsi of 5.21.
The rest of this year’s Corsi leaders among defensemen are generally puck movers who aren’t counted on to lock down the other team’s stars. Names like Torey Krug (12.88), Kevin Shattenkirk (10.64) and Dan Boyle (11.09) immediately stand out.
Duncan Keith (17.40) and Brent Seabrook (18.55), who usually make up one of the league’s finest minute-munching, all-around pairings, aren’t facing top competition this season.
Chicago Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville has been blessed with a stacked lineup and is wisely saving his big guns for the playoffs, opting to assign the tough defensive assignments to Swedish Olympians Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya.
The only shutdown defensemen—for the purpose of this article, we’ll define this as a d-man who plays the highest quality of competition on his club—who can even compete with Doughty’s possession game are San Jose Sharks duo Marc-Edouard Vlasic (17.93) and Justin Braun (12.41), Boston Bruins twosome Zdeno Chara (10.54) and Johnny Boychuk (10.72), and perpetually underrated New Jersey Devil Andy Greene (12.60).
The eye test adds to Doughty's case, as none of the aforementioned five can control the tempo of the game the way L.A.'s crown jewel can, slowing it to a crawl to relieve pressure or slicing through the opposition for a jaw-dropping offensive foray.
Soak in the total package for a moment: In addition to logging 26 minutes of ice time per game, taking on the opposition’s biggest threats, carrying a plus-16 rating, producing 40-plus points per year and occasionally weaving through an entire squad by himself, Doughty’s team would attempt 19 more shots per game than the opposition if he played every minute.
The centerpiece of the league's leading defense still manages to tilt the ice toward the other team's net better than anyone else around.
Now, he isn’t without faults. First and foremost, he can’t quarterback an effective power play on NHL ice. His entry passes are poor and his decision-making could use some work. His point shot doesn't get through often enough either.
Also, he does make the occasional defensive mistake. One play against the Bruins this season was particularly ugly, as Brad Marchand danced by four Kings—chief among them Doughty—to score an embarrassing short-handed marker.
However, even the greats like Ray Bourque have been danced on occasion. The important thing is offering a high level of sound, complete hockey on the whole.
Everything Doughty brings to the table offsets those foibles and then some.
Furthermore, he loves the big stage. Dating back to his dominant performance at the 2008 World Junior Hockey Championships, Doughty has been nothing but brilliant in pressure situations. Outside of his showing at the 2013 playoffs, which was hampered by an ankle injury, his postseason pedigree is outstanding (27 points in 32 games, plus-six).
His latest clutch exploits took place at the Sochi Olympics. After using the 2010 Vancouver Games as his coming-out party, Doughty returned four years later and dazzled once again, registering four goals and two assists in six games on a snake-bitten Team Canada while providing his typically poised, steady defense next to Vlasic.
Ottawa Senators rearguard Erik Karlsson may have been awarded the honor of best defenseman in the tournament, but Doughty was clearly the most effective all-around blueliner at the Games.
Where Karlsson alternated between power-play goals and defensive miscues, Doughty was the best player on the ice every time he took a shift, cutting through the opposition’s neutral-zone posture like a knife through butter to lead the charge and impose Canada’s will on the competition. Would-be forecheckers were thwarted with a simple, smart pass that launched the counterattack time and again.
He made his two-way peers, namely Alex Pietrangelo and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, look positively vanilla in comparison.
With a strong international showing comes the obligatory post-tournament hype. Fans—and perhaps more importantly where buzz is concerned, sportswriters—on the East Coast who’d forgotten about 2010 were granted another chance to see No. 8’s gifts.
Doughty's impressive play in Sochi was nothing new to those who’ve been paying attention, though. He’s been the best overall d-man in the game since 2012, when he notched 16 points in 20 postseason games with a plus-11 rating on the road to the franchise's first-ever Stanley Cup.
After his team was eliminated by the Kings in 2012, Phoenix Coyotes general manager Don Maloney had nothing but praise for Doughty. "On both sides of the puck, he was a difference maker, making key plays when the pressure was highest. As a team, the Kings are playing at an elite level and he stood out as one of their best players," he told ESPN.com.
Kings head coach Darryl Sutter highlighted just how pivotal a piece Doughty is in that same article:
He plays a big role on our team; there's not much room for deviation. It's preparing for that because he's a big part of the five-on-five, he's a big part of the power play, he's big part of the penalty killing, he probably plays as many minutes as any defenseman that's still playing along with the kids in New York. ... That's where you have to be well-rounded in all areas and not just a specialist. You have to be able to see yourself in all those situations.
He’ll never lead the league in defenseman scoring, but there isn’t a single blueliner in the world who would be worth Doughty in a one-for-one swap, because there isn’t a single blueliner in the world who’s as good in as many different areas.
Offensively, he can make something out of nothing the way Karlsson and PK Subban can, taking on an entire team by himself if need be. Defensively, he can smother the opposition the way Chara and Shea Weber can, frustrating superstars with crushing hits and tight coverage on a nightly basis.
Team Canada and Detroit Red Wings bench boss Mike Babcock saw how special Doughty was long before most hopped on the bandwagon. Way back in 2010, Babcock raved to reporters about the then-20-year-old:
He’s just better and smarter than everybody else. He’s just been touched by God and he’s been given a gift.
What I like about him is when he creates offense it’s not foolish. He’s not a risk-taker, he’s a game-breaker. And so he waits for the right times and he can play against the best people defensively. And he can play a ton of minutes.
Think about that for a second. The man who has coached preternatural talents such as Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk claims Doughty has been “touched by God.”
The Kings will need his tremendous gifts to be displayed in full over the season’s home stretch if they’re to secure a playoff berth. They currently sit seventh in the West, holding a tenuous four-point advantage over Dallas and Phoenix. Vancouver and Winnipeg aren't far behind, trailing L.A. by five and six points, respectively.
Prior to the Olympic break, the team was in a 2-8-0 slump and struggling to score. The offense needs a spark and the defense can’t afford to take a dive.
Producing goals without jeopardizing the club's three-zone structure is a fine line to walk, and much of the responsibility will fall upon the shoulders of a 24-year-old. The Kings need him to grab the bull by the horns and will this team to the playoffs.
If history’s provided any indication, however, Doughty’s ready for the challenge.