Drew Doughty is stepping it up
What we're seeing right now is the Doughty of two years ago, the one who put up a career-high 59 points and elevated his game to new heights as a 20-year-old in the Winter Olympics for the gold-medal winner, Team Canada.
That Doughty is back.
"I think my game this whole playoffs has been really good," Doughty said Tuesday night, after his team clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup finals. "I think I'm back to that guy that I know I can be. I'm loving everything about it, and I want to continue to be that guy. I think in order for us to win the Stanley Cup, I have to be that best defenseman on the ice every night, and I'm going to make sure I'm doing that."
Well, he certainly was the best defenseman on the ice in the Western finals, and that's saying something with Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson on the Coyotes' side, not to mention the impressive play of veterans Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi on his own team.
But Doughty stood above, especially in the clinching game Tuesday night, when his play at both ends of the ice was a major contributing factor, his two points (1 goal, 1 assist) leading the Kings to victory.
It's the player the Kings were missing last season, when he dipped to 40 points, and this season, when he sank to 36 points. A contract dispute in September made him miss camp, and that hurt his first half, just like it would for any player.
The coaching change that brought in Darryl Sutter, however, helped bring Doughty back to his lofty standards, yet another of the veteran coach's noticeable effects on this team. The Kings' coach has pressed Doughty hard, challenging him from the beginning to be the player he can be but also prepare accordingly to be that elite-level athlete.
During the conference finals, Sutter was asked what he believes Doughty needed to realize this season in order to take that next step.
"That the biggest part of the game is mental," Sutter said. "With most players, that's what it is. And everybody that's played or been around the game, you just don't come and play. You have to prepare for that. And when you're a playoff team, that's even more important. It's based on a game-to-game basis, not anything other than that. That's the tough part for all young players."
It's the realization that as a huge minutes guy on that team, he can't take a night off.
"He plays a big role on our team; there's not much room for deviation," Sutter said. "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. And when he does that, he's pretty good."
"Doughty's performance in our playoff series was reminiscent of his play as one of the top defenseman for Canada at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver," Coyotes GM Don Maloney told ESPN.com via email Wednesday. "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."
Added one Western Conference pro scout: "He finally looks like the player Dean [Lombardi] signed to the big deal. Drew was adversely impacted by missing camp but now looks to be all the way back and then some. His combination of youth, physicality, mobility and productivity is extremely rare."
What Sutter has done as well is channel the emotion in Doughty, as he has for a lot of Kings players, getting them to play with more of a "buy-in," as coaches like to say.
That emotion can cross the line as well, as it did Tuesday night when Doughty lost it in overtime when he was called for an interference penalty. He was lucky he didn't get an additional two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct when he slammed his stick on the ice near the referee in disgust.
"There's so much emotion in the game; you want to win so bad," Doughty said afterward. "Especially taking that penalty in overtime, you don't want to be the reason you lose a game. It definitely wasn't a penalty. I wish I hadn't lost it like that on the refs; I feel bad. But like I said, I was so upset, I want to win so bad, so I just couldn't control it."
Still, it shows how much he cares, which is something organizations worry about when they sign a young player to such a hefty and long-term contract. Doughty inked an eight-year deal worth $56 million before the season. Some young stars around the league have seen their play dip after signing big contracts, but Doughty's play in these playoffs is a promising sign.
His all-around game is back to where it was.
"I like him to use his ability instead of not using it," Sutter said. "His ability is moving the puck and skating, and gaining zones and skating by guys -- when he does that, then it's less time spent in his own zone. That's the biggest part for me. A lot of times, young guys break it out where they're talking about defense and offense -- it's sort of unfair to kids like that. Because their skill, that's something they're going to learn the defensive part as they go on. Most of it is experience with guys that have that high-end skill.''
Brown in finalsKings captain Dustin Brown still vividly recalls the first Stanley Cup finals he got emotionally invested in as a kid.
"The one Stanley Cup finals I always remember is New York," Brown said, referring to the Rangers' run in 1994. "Because I was 10 years old. Being from upstate New York, everyone was a New York Ranger fan, and it made me just want to root against them. I didn't have my way. That was probably my first real memory of the Stanley Cup. Those are good memories. Now to think I have an opportunity to play in one? I mean, this is what kids dream of.''
Hats off to the CoyotesI bring you back to the conversation I had Monday afternoon in Dave Tippett's office at Jobing.com Arena. I didn't use this part in my story on him that day. We were near the end of the interview when I asked him how much this playoff run this spring will have affected the team's tenuous existence in the Phoenix market, not to mention what it meant to his team in terms of taking a big step as a contender moving forward.
"I go back a lot to the Dallas situation," the former Stars coach told ESPN.com. "They started to have teams that made the playoffs and got further in the playoffs and then ended up winning the Cup. There's a four- to five-year window there where it really helped grow the game, grow the grassroots of the game. Anytime you're in a situation like this, where the city is abuzz right now and interested in what you're doing, hopefully that helps build the organization. When I came here three years ago and talked to [GM] Don [Maloney], it was an opportunity to build something. We made the playoffs two years in a row but didn't win a round. Now you win two rounds and you start proving to people that this could work here. The players here should be proud of their accomplishments and staying with it. And from an organizational standpoint, it's just another building block we hope to put in place to ensure the future of the team is going the right way.''