Hockey genius, passion player: Drew Doughty is an elite, mesmerizing talent – and the best is yet to come

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports
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All smiles on the outside, Drew Doughty's inner drive and focus on winning is nearly as impressive as his singular skill set. (Getty)

LOS ANGELES — They say Drew Doughty has improved, or he has matured, or he has taken more of a leadership role with the Los Angeles Kings. All of that is true. Four years ago, he won an Olympic gold medal and was a finalist for the Norris Trophy at only 20 years of age, and now, teammate Willie Mitchell said: “He’s twice the hockey player he was then.”

But there is another angle to Doughty, who just won his second Olympic gold medal and is three wins from his second Stanley Cup – and perhaps his first Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player. Maybe he is much the same guy he has always been. Maybe what has changed the most is how people look at him.

“I think his carefree attitude and style, some people really looked at that as a weakness,” Mitchell said. “He didn’t care enough, or he wasn’t putting enough effort, or he wasn’t working hard enough. Then people started to understand his identity. He’s got the most passion out of anyone on our hockey club, and you can see that.”

Mitchell laughed. Remember what happened Sunday when Alec Martinez scored in overtime to beat the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 7 of the Western Conference final? Remember how Doughty leapt to his feet on the bench, pounded the glass to his left, jumped over the boards to join the celebration … and fell on his face? Yeah, you can see that.

“He cares so much, and he wants to win so bad,” Mitchell continued. “I think people understand him a lot more and understand that it’s not a weakness. It’s actually a really big strength as a hockey player and a human.”

The Kings drafted Doughty second overall in 2008, behind only Steven Stamkos. He broke into the NHL at age 18. For a long time, he lived off his talent. He carried too much weight, as he had in junior. He played with a veteran partner, giving him backup. Now he has lost the baby fat at age 24, and he mentors partner Jake Muzzin, a year older but less experienced.

Doughty reaches for the puck against Rangers winger Chris Kreider during Game 1 of the 2014 Stanley Cup Final at Staples Ceneter in Los Angeles. (USA Today)
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Doughty reaches for the puck against Rangers winger Chris Kreider during Game 1 of the 2014 Stanley Cup Final at Staples Ceneter in Los Angeles. (USA Today)

Doughty has always had tremendous physical tools – the ability to skate the puck out of trouble defensively and drop jaws offensively. Mitchell likes to say he can skate “sideways,” like Sergei Zubov and Nicklas Lidstrom used to, but he also has a physical element those two didn’t. You don’t want to come down the boards and run into that big hockey butt.

And though Doughty has never been known as a thinker off the ice, he has always had a beautiful mind for the game. He is a hockey genius. He stood out at both the Vancouver and Sochi Olympics for Team Canada, like a gifted student who blossoms in an advanced class, surrounded by others who can work at his level. He can analyze himself by feel in the flow of the action.

“I can kind of feel how I’m going to play right away off the first period,” Doughty said. “If I’m feeling it in the first, I know I’m going to have a good game the whole time. If I’m not feeling it in the first, I’ll kind of just make simple plays and try to get it to come to me by the second period. I’ve learned not to do too much.”

Yet Doughty is still very much a wild stallion. Asked what it felt like when he was going good, his eyes lit up like a little kid’s – like the little kid in the home movie the Kings show before games at Staples Center, the little Drew Doughty who declares what he wants to be when he grows up: “Hockey player!”

“It feels good,” he said. “Yeah. It feels like you’re just playing with all the confidence in the world. Every time you get that puck on … You want that puck on your stick the entire time, and every time you do get it, you feel like you can make something happen. When you’re playing with that confidence, it usually does happen.”

Sometimes Doughty does do too much and makes a mistake, or sometimes a call goes against him – like when the Anaheim Ducks’ Corey Perry was awarded a penalty shot in Game 7 of the second round, even though Doughty didn’t actually break his stick – and he loses his beautiful mind. The Kings have learned that is not necessarily a bad thing. They have learned how to rein him in and help him harness that energy.

“It’s his passion,” Mitchell said. “You never want to take passion away from anyone. How could you ever want to do that? Anyone who’s that passionate, they’re going to be successful because they care that much. And to be honest, when he gets that engaged and he gets that involved, he actually gets better. He plays with a little nastiness.”

“It’s just tailing him back in and getting him focused, because when he’s focused with that emotion, I think everyone is well aware of how capable he is and how he can control a game,” said Kings captain Dustin Brown. “It’s just calming him down. It’s getting in front of his face.”

Doughty celebrates his goal on Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist with teammate Kyle Clifford during Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final in Los Angeles. (Reuters)
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Doughty celebrates his goal on Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist with teammate Kyle Clifford during Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final in Los Angeles. (Reuters)

“The only reason I get emotional is because I’m so competitive and I want to win so bad,” Doughty said. “That’s the only reason I ever get emotional. I don’t want to be that guy that takes a penalty in a certain spot and they score a goal.”

Doughty was “that guy” at times Wednesday night in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. The puck came out to the point, and he tried to toe-drag it past a charging Benoit Pouliot, and Pouliot poked it off his stick and scored on a breakaway, giving the New York Rangers a 1-0 lead. He went nuts at the officials when he thought Derick Brassard had butt-ended him, and later he took a penalty for embellishment, flopping to the ice when Rich Nash held him.

But there was also this: Even though that first toe-drag hadn’t worked, Doughty had the guts to try another one – an even fancier one. He took a pass and eluded the Rangers’ Derek Dorsett in the high slot by pulling the puck between his legs. Then he went to the net, and he had the patience to stop in the left circle for a split-second and pick a spot to shoot.

“Watch Doughty’s eyes,” wrote former NHL goalie and goalie coach Corey Hirsch on Twitter (edited). “He’s not looking top-shelf. He’s looking to score right where he put it, through arm and body. Often overlooked spot.”

Tie game, 2-2. Doughty crashed into the glass to celebrate – and stayed upright this time. It was all there in one moment, the genius, the mad genius, the emotion and the talent coming together. He has five goals and 17 points in these playoffs, most among NHL defensemen.

“When I get angry, I kind of turn it on,” Doughty said afterward. “I try to throw my emotions in the right way. Sometimes, I don’t. Yeah, it’s a bad turnover. I wasn’t happy with myself. I didn’t want to try to do too much to make up for it. I had to be a better player than I was on that play.”

Doughty was one of the best defensemen in the NHL in the regular season, if not the best, even though he wasn’t a Norris finalist. He played against top competition in tough situations, and he drove possession for the best possession team and the best defensive team in the league. He has been the Kings’ best player in on this playoff run, with apologies to center Anze Kopitar. If he continues to shine and the Kings win the Cup, he could win the Conn Smythe.

The scary part is that for all the talk of his improvement and maturation and evolution as a leader, he still has plenty of room to grow. “He’s a long ways from being as good as he’s going to be,” said Kings coach Darryl Sutter, “just because of his age.” He just has to be himself. He just has to keep that passion.

“I’ve learned that it’s so hard to get to this point, it’s so hard to win that Cup, that you can’t take a night off, can’t take a shift off,” Doughty said. “I want nothing more than to feel that feeling again. That was the best feeling I’ve ever had in my life, winning that Stanley Cup with these guys. It’s a hard feeling to explain. It’s the best feeling in the world.”