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Thursday, May 22, 2014
Updated: May 23, 11:39 AM ET
Why Doughty is Conn Smythe fave

By Craig Custance
ESPN The Magazine

CHICAGO -- Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty admits there are times when he loses it on the ice.

For example, Game 7 against the Anaheim Ducks. He got so emotional he said Dustin Brown had to come calm him down on the bench.

Those emotions came out again in Game 2 against the Chicago Blackhawks. Down two goals, in danger of dropping the first two games of the Western Conference finals, the anger returned.

"I'm a bit of a snap show sometimes when I'm out there," Doughty said. "I get mad at myself in those situations because I feel like I have to be a leader on this team and I have to lead our team in the right direction. At the same time, I like to keep the other guys accountable, so if they're making a mistake, I'm going to let them know about that. Maybe I'm a little too hard on guys sometimes."

He knows some see it as a weakness. The anger, he said, brings out the best in his game. And he backed it up, with a big shot that Jeff Carter deflected on the power play in the third period to tie Game 2 against the Blackhawks. The Kings took it from there.

The assist gave Doughty 10 points in 16 playoff games this spring. His possession numbers continue to be among the best, with the Kings controlling 55.3 percent of even-strength shot attempts when he's on the ice.

Slowly, his case is building.

A defenseman hasn't won the Conn Smythe since Scott Niedermayer did it with the Ducks in 2007. Since 1990, only four defensemen have won the Conn Smythe: Brian Leetch, Scott Stevens, Nicklas Lidstrom and Niedermayer.

Without a doubt, Doughty should be in the conversation this year and he's not alone. No team gets this far without a reliable anchor on its defense and the Montreal Canadiens have that in P.K. Subban, the Blackhawks have two in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, and the New York Rangers' Ryan McDonagh has overcome a slow start to re-establish himself as one of the best defensemen in this postseason.

They might be the most important players on their respective teams, but the reality is they're Conn Smythe underdogs.

Brian Burke, the GM of the Ducks team to last have a defenseman win the Conn Smythe, thinks that's a mistake. He explained it this way: If you look at a Stanley Cup-winning team like a pyramid, the goalie sits at the top as the most important piece. Right below the goalie comes the defense.

"The forwards get the headlines but the defensemen do the work, they do the thinking," Burke told ESPN The Magazine. "The backbone of every team that wins the Cup is the blue line. The guys who win hockey games are defensemen. Their contributions should be recognized. If I'm defenseman John Doe and I'm as good as a forward in a series, I should win a reward. It should be the tiebreaker."

Doughty might be putting together the strongest case, but Subban still has time to add his name to a list of Conn Smythe favorites. It's an award that is supposed to recognize an entire playoff performance, but the conference finals are often the time a case gains the most momentum.

Last year, Patrick Kane won the Conn Smythe in a candidacy that was boosted because of his performance against the Kings in the Western Conference finals, when he scored four goals in the final two games to put them away.

For the Canadiens to have any hope of turning the Eastern Conference finals in their favor, it's going to take a big-time performance from Subban. He leads all defensemen with 12 points in this postseason but has been held off the score sheet against the Rangers through two games. Subban has had enough success so far in this postseason that if he leads a turnaround against the Rangers, he's very much in the MVP mix.

Both Subban and Doughty have a flair for the dramatic and play with confidence regardless of the situation, which helps their case.

P.K. Subban
If the Canadiens somehow rally, P.K. Subban will be a front-runner for the Conn Smythe.

"They're very similar guys as far as how they believe in their skills and they're confident," said Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp, who played with both on Team Canada's gold medal-winning team in Sochi, Russia. "Playing that position, carrying the puck a lot. They're not afraid to try things and make mistakes. If they do make mistakes, they're going to try and get it the next shift. They're that confident."

The Rangers' 2-0 series lead, Canadiens goaltender Carey Price's injury and the shift to New York make the Rangers the favorite to advance to the Stanley Cup finals, so the East's best hope for a defenseman to win the Conn Smythe might be McDonagh. He was called out against the Pittsburgh Penguins by coach Alain Vigneault for his subpar performance, and at times he looked to be playing hurt. Things have changed. During the Rangers' five-game win streak, he has eight points and has catapulted his postseason points total to nine after going the entire first round without a point. Voters might be willing to forgive a slow start if McDonagh continues producing on his way to a Stanley Cup.

"He's been awesome. I think his plays on the power play have been a big key for us. He's made some great plays when we've needed it," Rangers defenseman Marc Staal told ESPN.com's Katie Strang. "I think it was only a matter of time. Before, I think he was playing well. He wasn't playing poorly or anything. These last five or six games he's brought it up another level. It's great to see."

And in Chicago, there are two prime candidates on defense. Duncan Keith was in the conversation last year for the Conn Smythe and has put himself in contention again this year if the Blackhawks win. But it's Brent Seabrook who deserves more recognition than he's getting on defense for the Blackhawks. Despite missing three games because of his first-round suspension for the cheap shot on the St. Louis Blues' David Backes, Seabrook has moved into second place among defensemen in scoring with 11 points.

"No one seems to talk about the offensive production Seabs is putting up," Sharp said. "He's one of those guys who just flies under the radar and people take him for granted because he consistently does it time in and time out. But he's definitely doing it right now."

Will it all be enough to catch the eyes of voters? History suggests otherwise, with big-time scoring or goalie performances often getting more attention. Kings president of business operations and Hall of Famer Luc Robitaille was on a 2002 Detroit Red Wings team that saw Lidstrom win a Conn Smythe, so he's seen it happen. But even if voters ultimately don't recognize the defensemen, he knows their value.

"Maybe the fans and the press don't appreciate them as much, but for management, everybody knows you need those guys. You win with good defense," Robitaille told ESPN The Magazine. "If you want to have a good team, you want to have one of those 30-minute defensemen. Drew is that for us. He's been really, really good for us."