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May 27, 2012 | 10:17am ET


Back Where Drew Belongs
  The Los Angeles Kings' Drew Doughty's playoff run reestablishes him among the game's elite defensemen.

LOS ANGELES -- As the Kings bask in the afterglow of last week's series-ending triumph in Phoenix, their improbable march to the Stanley Cup goes on with minimal resistance from the opposition.

The Coyotes, like the Canucks and Blues before them, wilted and eventually succumbed to the combination of depth, size, speed and skill that's been the signature of the Kings 2012 playoff success.

Darryl Sutter and Dean Lombardi's late season creation wreaked havoc throughout the NHL's Western Conference since mid-April to a degree that the numbers produced are edging towards historical. The hard numbers that show a win loss record of 12 wins and 2 losses, a rate matched by few teams through three playoff rounds. While the winning percentage is impressive, the bigger feat is Los Angeles sitting on the cusp of being the only eight seed in the history of sports to be established as the betting favorite in the title round.

The organization's theory to a championship has been consistent; you win with strength down the middle, a developmental strategy that works across sports organizations.

In baseball, it's catching, middle infield and center field, and GM Lombardi, an avid student of both sports, has crafted it into goaltending, defense and depth at center ice - for hockey purposes. While the parts were in place for the past two seasons, the execution wasn't and only when Lombardi recruited the proper bench general in Sutter, did the formula start to work successfully.

The third round triumph brought into focus the maturation of a player who must be a leader on this Los Angeles team after a ton of criticism throughout the regular season. Jonathan Quick makes the saves when necessary and Dustin Brown forcefully injects himself into every key situation. Dustin Penner has written the ultimate redemption story and Anze Kopitar has proven he needs to be in every conversation about the NHL's elite centers but the difference maker in the third round was Drew Doughty.

It's been a really looooong season for the native of London, Ontario, from the protracted contract negotiations that had Kings' fans fretting needlessly through training camp to the near daily rants in the early season that Drew was woefully out of shape.

The exclamation point on a mediocre season came when veteran Willie Mitchell was voted the Kings best defenseman at the end of the regular season. While Mitchell have been an integral part of the Kings success and earned a deserved contract extension, it's the dude who makes $6 million who needs to be your best night in and night out. The Kings' improving play in the stretch clinched them a spot in the post-season dance, but their failure to win a pair of season ending games against the San Jose Sharks but them in the disadvantageous (at the time) eighth seed in the highly competitive Western Conference.

Entering his third consecutive post season, Doughty's playoff performances were a barometer for the Kings lack of success. Two seasons ago, Drew was killer on the power play, but his even strength play suffered (minus-5 rating over six games) and the Canucks emerged after a six game struggle.

Last season, Drew gave offense again and although his defense was far better, the Kings weren't mature enough to stand prosperity. Their infamous Game 3 collapse against San Jose was the proof that although this team was talented, they didn't possess the emotional makeup to drive a deep playoff run.

The season's roller coaster ride deposited the Kings at the feet of the Vancouver Canucks in early April and careers were riding on Los Angeles' ability to pull off a historic eight over one upset. From its feisty GM Dean Lombardi to the core players like Kopitar and Brown, a third consecutive first round playoff ouster would have started a major run of changes at the corner of 11th and Figueroa in downtown Los Angeles.

With most giving the team only a puncher's chance against the President Trophy winners, they played two perfect road games to leave British Columbia with an improbable two-nil series lead. Doughty's play in the first two games mirrored his regular season, good enough to help the team win but not the game breaking, difference maker that his teammates needed and what fans and his paycheck demanded. When the Kings split the next two games at home (their Achilles Heel all season is their performance at Staples), the Canucks had an opportunity to crawl back into the series with a Game 5 victory at home. They had been buoyed by the heroic return of Daniel Sedin to the lineup which galvanized their lineup and the roaring faithful at Rogers Arena believe that a reverse sweep could was at hand.

The game broke down as most have in the Kings playoff season, they played a tight defensive road game with an aggressive fore-check that gave them numerous opportunities but through forty minutes backup Vancouver goaltender Cory Schneider was pitching a shutout. With the Kings trailing by one, the play that launched Drew Doughty to the next playoff level, the one that everyone was waiting for was executed. Gathering the puck at center ice off a bad pass from David Booth, he came down the middle and turned Keith Ballard to create space for Brad Richardson to tap in a slick feed to knot the game early in the third period. While most fans will remember the wicked Jarret Stoll wrist shot in overtime that clinched the series, we feel Doughty's rush was the legitimate starting point of this championship run.

Debate the premise on the overall effect of the team if you like, but the impact on the player is indisputable. In nine games over two rounds against St. Louis and Phoenix, two goals, six assists and a plus eight rating makes him arguably the best defenseman remaining in the tournament. He trails Bryce Salvador and Dan Girardi by one point though he's played only 14 games (Girardi -- 19, Salvador -- 17) and his overall plus 10 is only equaled by Salvador. The production over the last two rounds is Exhibit A that he's seized the moment but his on ice actions throughout the entirety of the post season are the full proof.

When the Canucks tried to goad him into foolish penalties after the whistle, he laughed in their faces and skated away. When he was on the hook for a tough interference penalty in overtime that could have extended the Phoenix series to a tenuous Game 6, he took exception to the call and his emotions led him to a passionate on-ice demonstration that some thought were worthy of an unsportsmanlike conduct or ten minute misconduct but Doughty walked the fine line of protest. When the linesmen blew an off-side call (and what is with so many missed off-side this playoff season), he went at them as well. That's exactly what you want in a leader, the guy willing to challenge and question authority, someone willing to show his heart on his sleeve in the heat of the battle.

"I was losing my mind on both of those calls, but when you want to win so bad sometimes you just can't control your emotions," he admitted in the celebratory post-game locker-room.

So if the Kings go on to win the Stanley Cup, it may be time to make for Doughty being the best pick of the 2008 Entry Draft. Yes, the same draft year that has Steven Stamkos as the first overall selection. Yes, the same dude that scored an amazing 60 goals this season and is a big favorite by the crew at The Fourth Period. Stamkos' 156 goals is a staggering number in today's NHL, his shot is legendary and like Doughty, he's an excellent dude, so in no way are we disparaging the player and his once in a generation skills.

Though Tampa Bay finished tenth in the Eastern Conference, he convinced enough writers who cover the sport that he should be a Finalist for the Hart Trophy but after completing his fourth NHL season, Stamkos has only seen the post season once while this is Doughty's third consecutive (and deepest) playoff appearance.

Those that argue the Kings are a better team are correct but both players started at same point, their teams stunk and they were looked at as the ones to take them to the championship level. Steven came oh-so-close, the Lightning came within a goal of a Finals berth last season but with Drew being a major force in this championship run, you'd wonder who Lombardi would have picked had he had the first overall selection on the floor in Ottawa almost four years ago.

With the rare exception of a Steve Yzerman or Mark Messier, leadership on a hockey team comes from a group of individuals. With the Kings it's no different, there's the quiet assurance of the captain Brown, whose actions always speak louder than his words. There are the warhorses like Mitchell, who will talk as long as there's one microphone left in the room and dudes like Rob Scuderi and Justin Williams who can bring their shiny Stanley Cup rings from previous stops to reinforce and motivate what it take for the final four wins.

This playoff season, Drew Doughty has entered the circle; he's no longer the cool dude, precocious likeable guy who's loving life in Los Angeles. He was schooled defensively by his first teacher; former Kings coach Terry Murray and then graduated to Head Master Darryl Sutter's Finishing School. The change in his leader's voice and style has injected the right sense of urgency and passion into Drew's game. The few percentage points of confidence that were lacking in the player's personality have been injected in the last month. His performance with the stakes at their highest should return Doughty into the conversation that he was in two seasons ago, the one that has him as a future Norris winner.

"You dream your whole life about going to the Stanley Cup. You hear from the older guys who hard it is to get there, a guy like Mitchell who's played thirteen years to get there for him, it's a great feeling," as he puts his teammates' feelings above his own, confident that this will be the first of multiple trips to the Finals.

Dennis Bernstein is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period Magazine. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.


 

 

ARCHIVES 
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