Drew Doughty will not win the 2014 Norris Trophy, and he knows it. In fact, he may never win the official title as the NHL's best defenseman as long as he's a member of the Los Angeles Kings, and the Kings continue to employ a defense-first philosophy.
He’s not exactly thrilled to be so underappreciated by members of the NHL print media, but he’s fine with the inevitable snub. The Kings system might hurt his statistics, but it allows the 24-year-old defenseman the opportunity to do what he does best: win championships.
"I know if I want to ever win a Norris, I’m going to have to be top two or three in the league for defensemen in points,” Doughty told Bleacher Report recently during a reflective postgame moment. "Playing here in L.A., that’s just not our style of game. It’s just not going to happen."
Doughty—who given his propensity for standing out when the pressure is highest might be among the top few players in the world—may not even be a finalist for the Norris. Despite being one of the best players at the Sochi Games at any position and helping the Kings become one of the league’s best at preventing goals against, his point total is only good enough for 22nd in the league this season among defensemen.
Ultimately, he knows he’s appreciated by his own organization, his peers and is aware that any of the league’s other 29 general managers would love to have him on their teams. He'd rather hoist another team trophy at the end of the season over an individual award and add a second Stanley Cup to his collection of team accomplishments many past Norris winners would be extremely jealous of.
He has Olympic gold medals from both Winter Games appearances (Vancouver 2010, Sochi 2014). He claimed a Stanley Cup with the Kings in 2012. He’s also won gold at the 2008 World Junior Hockey Championship and silver at the 2009 World Hockey Championship.
There was one Norris Trophy nomination back in 2010, his second season in the NHL. Doughty wasn’t nearly as good a defenseman back then, but his 59 points in 82 games was the third-best total from the blue line that season—the default statistic many voters who don’t get to watch the entire list of potential candidates more than once or twice a year often lean on when picking the best in the league.
Looking at Doughty’s six-year career by offensive output alone, the second season—the Norris nomination—looks like an anomaly. His steep drop from the high 50s to the 35-40-point range, an impressive offensive season for many NHL defensemen but not considered elite, has led to questions about his talent, his weight, his hefty contract and his ranking among the game’s best.
But when you have as much talent as Doughty, it’s easier to contribute offensively as a defenseman in your early years before your minutes come against the most talented forwards the other team has to offer.
Dion Phaneuf had a strong statistical start to his career with the Calgary Flames, netting point totals of 49, 50 and 60 in his first three years while being sheltered by Darryl Sutter, his coach at the time and Doughty’s head coach now in L.A.
Phaneuf earned enough Norris votes to become a finalist in his third year. Then came the drop as he was given bigger minutes against better players. His point totals fell. His stock did too. He was traded to the Maple Leafs, and aside from the lockout-shortened season, he hasn’t been among the offensive leaders since.
Considering the progress he’s made defensively, Doughty’s career might be more comparable to 2010 Olympic teammate Scott Niedermayer—at least in terms of where it could go.
|The Learning Curve: Niedermayer vs. Doughty|
"I do feel like I get underappreciated, unnoticed, but what can you do?” Doughty said. “All I can do is play my game out here in L.A., help our team win games. Hopefully I get judged for being on a winning team for so long rather than having to win the Norris—even though I want to."
He deserves to at least be seriously considered right along with offensive studs Keith and Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators. The points aren’t up there, but there’s so much more to Doughty’s game. If there wasn’t, his coach wouldn’t be sending him out there an average of nearly 27 minutes a night.
Sutter doesn’t like to single out players for praise, so his comments suggesting Doughty’s role on his own team and his international accolades showing others how valuable he is are borderline giddiness from the typically scowling bench boss:
"I don’t think he’s underrated," Sutter said. "He gets nominated for Norris, he gets all-star votes, he gets to play for the team that just won the (Olympic) tournament. He plays top five minutes in the league."
At the moment, he’s top six, but his plus-17 rating is by far the best among those above him.
Doughty is so dependable, Sutter is comfortable saddling him with a partner like Jake Muzzin—a 25-year-old who lucked into the perfect blue-line partner during the lockout-shortened season—and still matching him against the best forwards the opposition has to offer.
The graphic above is the player usage chart via Extra Skater. The further up the chart, the harder the competition a player faces. The further left he is shows how frequently he starts in the defensive end. The color of the circle indicates the player's possession rate (percentage), and the size of the circle indicates his average ice time.
Doughty faces the toughest competition on the Kings' defensive corps, starts the third most often in the defensive end behind veteran defensive specialists Robyn Regehr and Willie Mitchell, plays big minutes and still has one of the best Corsi ratings on the team.
His dominant performance for Team Canada at the Sochi Games in February opened the door to discussion about Doughty as one of the world’s best players period, regardless of position. He was that good and had a bigger impact on Canada’s gold-medal charge than Sidney Crosby, Ryan Getzlaf or any of the other superstars the country had to offer.
It wasn’t just his point total, which was an impressive six in six games (four goals, two assists). His contributions were timely and impactful. A Norwegian goal in the third period cut Canada’s lead to a shocking single goal in the team’s tournament opener. But Doughty responded with an insurance marker less than a minute later to quash any hopes of an upset.
With a flood of questions about Canada’s chemistry, Doughty opened the scoring in the next contest and helped the team to a 6-0 victory over Austria.
He scored the overtime winner against Finland in the final game of the preliminary round to earn the team a bye into the quarterfinals. And in that quarterfinal game against a tough Latvian squad, it was Doughty who set up Shea Weber for a late winning goal on the power play.
He’s a big-game player. On an international stage, he shines more brightly than most. He started the 2010 Vancouver Games as the seventh defenseman, brought along to gain experience and not expected to play much if at all. But he finished on the top pairing alongside Weber. In Sochi, he made another giant leap and was named to the tournament’s all-star team along with Sweden’s Karlsson.
It’s the same in the playoffs. In 2012, Doughty came through for the world champion Kings with four goals and 16 points in 20 games, including a pair of goals and six points in the six-game final series against the New Jersey Devils.
Fellow defenseman Willie Mitchell told Cam Cole of the National Post back then that Doughty was something special in the spotlight:
He’s a bright-lights player. Always has been. When the game’s on the line, he likes that stage and he wants to be the guy who makes the difference. You don’t grow into that, I don’t think. It’s either in you or it’s not in you. I think that’s been in him since he was a kid. Lucky us.
Doughty says there’s something about the big games and the big stage—like the Olympics—that just makes playing more fun for him.
"It’s just a big situation. It’s a big pressure situation. It’s a time when everyone, in Canada especially, is going to be able to see you play. It’s a time when I realize I have to step up," Doughty said. "Being a player in L.A., I feel like I kind of get overlooked a lot. People don’t see that what I did at the Olympics I do pretty much every day here in L.A.—maybe not to the same extent where I was getting a lot of points, but I still play as hard and as defensively. I love playing for my country. I don’t feel any pressure when I get in those situations. I just go out there and have fun."
That makes him fun to watch. More moments like those—say, another Stanley Cup run—and Doughty will surely get the attention he deserves.
Veteran Kings defenseman Robyn Regehr has pegged his peer as one of the best at his craft now that he’s seen him play night in and night out for the last year.
"As a defenseman, I think he’s probably top three in the NHL. The reason probably a lot of people might not rank him there is because he plays on the West Coast—you don’t get a lot of prime-time television, not a lot of coverage," Regehr said. "You can fly under the radar a little bit and I think he’s fine with that."
He is, although he admits a Norris nod is still something he wants. But he enjoys winning more. That’s his motivation.
"I love it," Doughty said of his change in mindset after his offensive success early on. "I’d rather be on a winning team any day than lead defensemen in points."
All reporting is firsthand unless otherwise noted.