Drew Doughty Trending Toward Becoming the NHL's Best Defenseman

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Drew Doughty Trending Toward Becoming the NHL's Best Defenseman
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Drew Doughty is not the best defenseman in the NHL

That doesn't mean we aren't currently watching his ascension to that spot.

It's easy to lose track of the fact that Doughty is still just 24 years old and has yet to fully realize his potential. One glimpse of the London, Ontario, native during these or, really, any of his past three performances in the Stanley Cup playoffs makes it plain to see that he has every tool required to be the best on the blue line.

“I want to be the best defenseman in the world without a doubt,” Doughty said. 

In terms of career arc, Doughty is on a path that is not all that dissimilar from that of Scott Niedermayer.

Both were 19 years old in their first full NHL season. They have nearly the same build (both are 6'1"; Doughty at 210 is about 10 pounds heavier). Doughty was drafted second overall; Niedermayer was selected with the third pick. Both players possess speed, vision and have the ability to be offensive forces from the blue line, although Doughty brings more of a physical game while Niedermayer's skating ability was nearly unrivaled in his day.

The biggest thing they have in common is the systems in which they play. The New Jersey Devils were legendary for their defense-first, lockdown style, and while the Los Angeles Kings aren't looking to trap teams into oblivion, a free-wheeling offensive defenseman isn't a requirement to win, either.

To watch both players in their primes, it's clear that each could do more offensively. But both rarely depart from the structure that make their teams great, but when they did, it led to highlight-reel goals. Just watch Doughty pick apart Derek Dorsett and Henrik Lundqvist in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday or Niedermayer gut the Detroit Red Wings with an end-to-end rush in Game 2 of the 1995 Final. 

Yet early in their careers, both Doughty and Niedermayer only showed flashes.

Niedermayer gained entry into the Hall of Fame in 2013 after a career that featured four Stanley Cups, one Olympic gold medal, five All-Star Games and a Conn Smythe Trophy. He is considered one of the best defensemen in the history of the NHL, yet for the first 11 years of his career, he wasn't the league's best defenseman.

Niedermayer won exactly one Norris Trophy in his career at the age of 30.

It's not only that Niedermayer developed later in his career; it was more about the fact he played on a team that was so dedicated to defense (and featured Scott Stevens). It was also hard to gain recognition with voters when he was struggling to crack 40 points in a season and Nicklas Lidstrom was in his prime.

Drew Doughty vs. Scott Niedermayer, first six seasons
Player Games Goals Assists Points Points per game
Drew Doughty 442 59 162 221 0.50
Scott Niedermayer 452 52 179 231 0.51

Hockey-Reference

Doughty is somewhat of a victim of that as well, as coach Darryl Sutter doesn't require his top defenseman to attack offensively in the same vain as Erik Karlsson.

Yet in the seasons before Sutter arrived and replaced Terry Murray, Doughty delivered his best offensive production. His offensive gifts are plainly there, but have taken a backseat to a system that is close to birthing a second championship in three years.

"I just go out there and play," said Doughty, who owns two Olympic gold medals. "At the end of the day, the world won't judge me by how many Norris Trophies I win but how many Stanley Cups I win. When I stop playing this game, I want to be known as a winner.”

Much like Niedermayer, Doughty has yet to win a Norris Trophy in the early stages of his career. But if there was a trophy for Best Defenseman handed out during the playoffs, Doughty would likely be on the verge of winning his second award in three seasons.

For whatever reason, Doughty's game rises to another level during hockey's second season.

Over the past three regular seasons, he has 26 goals and 95 points in 203 games, an average of 0.47 points per game. That ranks 24th among defensemen with at least 150 games, putting him behind luminaries such as Kimmo Timonen, Dennis Wideman and Alex Goligoski.

That changes in the postseason, however.

Over the past three postseasons, Doughty has 11 goals and 38 points in 60 games, an average of 0.63 points per game. That ranks fourth among defensemen with at least 20 games, putting him behind non-sarcastic luminaries Kris Letang, PK Subban and Paul Martin.

What's the difference in the postseason? Does Sutter offer Doughty the freedom that Devils coach Jacques Lemaire rarely offered Niedermayer?

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

"No, Darryl lets me play no matter what the circumstances are," Doughty said. "Just lets me go out there and do my thing. I try to do the same things in the regular season. I try to jump in the offense, put points up. Sometimes it just doesn't go that way."

Luck is a significant factor in a player's production, and Doughty may have a point that the bounces tend to go his way more often in the playoffs than they do int he regular season.

The jump in scoring isn’t easily explained away by a huge increase in shooting percentage; it’s 5.6 over the past three regular seasons and 7.9 in the postseason. The latter number is not that far above his career shooting percentage of 6.8.

Doughty has averaged 2.15 shots per game over the past three postseasons, which is slightly down from his average of 2.26 over the past three regular seasons. It’s especially odd since Doughty logs about 90 seconds of ice time more per game in the playoffs than he does in the regular season.

"That guy can play and play every night. He's a freak," defense partner Jake Muzzin said. "I don't know how he does it. But he's a pleasure to play beside. He's probably one of the top three guys to play the most hockey in the last couple years when you think about it, going into playoffs, ice time, Olympics. He brings energy and still has energy throughout the whole game."

Bill Smith/Getty Images

Regular season or postseason, Doughty is a terrific driver of possession against quality competition but finds himself on the ice for goals scored by his team far more often in the playoffs. Some of it has to do with luck and some of it has to do with him savoring the postseason spotlight.

“I feel that every night, really,” Doughty said when asked if he sees himself as a difference maker. “I step up to these occasions. I like the pressure. I like being the guy that makes a difference for the team to win. My ultimate thing is winning. That's all I care about, is being a winner and helping this team win. And I'll do anything I can.”

Doughty is three wins away from having two Stanley Cups by the age of 24; Niedermayer won his second Stanley Cup when he was 26. Neither player did it with gaudy offensive numbers, but Niedermayer's history shows those days could be coming for Doughty as he continues to mature.

Niedermayer's three best offensive seasons came at the ages of 32, 33 and 35 when he left New Jersey to play for the Anaheim Ducks. During his first six full seasons in the NHL, Niedermayer averaged a paltry 0.513 points per game and only broke 50 points once during the first 11 seasons of his career.

Drew Doughty possession numbers
Season Corsi% Fenwick% Goals For % QofC rank (D)
2011-12 55.4 54.0 48.8 27th
2012 playoffs 52.6 53.5 65.4 7th
2013 57.8 56.5 49.3 14th
2013 playoffs 48.3 47.9 26.7 13th
2013-14 58.5 57.3 58.5 44th
2014 playoffs 53.9 52.3 56.3 13th

Extra Skater

Doughty is averaging 0.50 points per game through his first six seasons. And while people always believed Niedermayer could be an elite point producer with any other team despite a lack of statistical evidence, Doughty showed what he can do with 59 points in 82 games as a 20-year-old in 2009-10.

"My vision's always been the same," Doughty said. "One of the best assets I have as a player is my vision. I've had that since I was in junior. I've learned a lot things from playing in the NHL, watching other guys do their thing, having help from veteran guys. I've learned. Moreso, I've been better positionally. From there, that has my vision take over. I get the puck and go with my instincts."

The underlying numbers for Doughty in his two full seasons under Sutter are exceptional. Doughty ranked sixth and third in Fenwick percentage the past two regular seasons and during the 2011-12 postseason, he ranked fifth in that category.

It's very possible that just as the case was with Niedermayer, Doughty's best days are still ahead of him.

"In Drew's case, you look at every great team in history, they've always had that great defenseman," Kings general manager Dean Lombardi said. "Whether it's Lidstrom, (Sergei) Zubov, (Chris) Chelios, go right through the list. We all know how important those guys were.

"He's got a ways to go to catch those guys, but that's his goal, to be in that class someday."

 

Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.

All statistics via NHL.com, Extra Skater and Hockey-Reference

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