How Drew Doughty Settled Back Into His Groove
Losing hurts. Beyond the sting of defeat, losing over an extended period of time can open the door for bad habits to slip in. This is especially true for fiery competitors who hate nothing more than coming up short when it counts.
Drew Doughty fits that bill—and he’s been no exception to its pitfalls. The 32-year-old blueliner’s performance has mirrored the Los Angeles Kings’ tumble from Western Conference powerhouse to also-ran all the way down to cellar-dweller. From 2018-20, he grabbed the reins and attempted to play the hero out of sheer desperation. Defensively, Doughty would sprint around the ice like a chicken with its head cut off because he felt compelled to do everyone else’s job. Offensively, he would try to dangle through a crowd and will his club to victory. In the end, his efforts merely tanked his game.
But much like L.A. has rebounded from the 25th-highest to the 15th-highest points percentage this season, Doughty has bounced back too (29 points in 32 games). He was solid in 2020-21, but if he hadn’t missed 19 contests due to injury this year, his name would be firmly in the Norris Trophy conversation. In his 14th NHL campaign, he’s turning back the clock to deliver sensational three-zone outings.
As it always has for Doughty, his impact begins with defense. The entire reason he was arguably the best rearguard of the 2010s is that he was dynamic, productive and a shutdown artist. Granted, he might not stifle opponents to that degree anymore, but he’s rediscovered a fair portion of his two-way ability. He boasts razor-sharp instincts, he takes smart angles on entries, he has a disruptive stick and he’s still willing to dole out the occasional bone-rattling hit:
He’s back to making it look…easy. He possesses the wheels to funnel puck-carriers into a dead end. He has a 6’1”, 210-pound frame with which he can outmuscle forwards in the trenches. Most importantly, he boasts the savvy required to recognize what to do in any given situation. When he should take more depth, when he should engage, when he should front shots, when he should tie up his mark.
He boasts as complete a defensive skill set as there is in the league, and he’s using it judiciously again. Rather than panicking and trying to put out every fire in sight, Doughty is playing within himself and trusting his teammates. It doesn’t hurt that Philip Danault is now one of them.
At any rate, Doughty’s measured approach is also coming in handy when his teammates do drop the ball:
He remains an absolute force in outnumbered situations because he plays them by the book, removing the passing threat and daring the puck-carrier to shoot while staying just close enough to plant a seed of doubt. He’s somehow in perfect control.
Doughty’s poise under fire is critical because he mainly plays alongside 22-year-old Mikey Anderson. The sophomore is a promising and toolsy blueliner, but he remains green at this stage in his development. He’s bound to make his share of mistakes. Fortunately, his veteran partner is proving capable of sliding over and limiting the damage when necessary. This has turned L.A.’s top duo into one of the finest in the league.
45 defensive pairings have logged at least 400 minutes together at 5-on-5 this season. Doughty and Anderson have allowed the fewest shot attempts, fewest scoring chances, 12th-fewest high-danger chances and 12th-fewest expected goals. Overall, they own 58.4% of the expected goals (1st) and 57.5% of the actual goals (15th). And that’s with poor goaltending (39th) and stiff competition.
Another area that has benefited from a greater sense of calm is his puck management. While he’s certainly gifted in possession, his decision-making is a lot quieter and more efficient in 2021-22:
Instead of taking on a five-man unit by himself, he’s simply looking to buy time and create space. He displays a good feel for when he should floor it and when he can escape forecheckers through the backdoor. He still makes an excellent first pass. In the offensive zone, he’s patient and more willing to let plays develop. He’s removed most of the toe drags in the middle of the ice in order to embrace more of a facilitator’s role. He’s there to support the offense—not to lead the charge himself.
As a result, he’s cleaned up his game. He’s never committed fewer turnovers. In fact, compared to his averages from a few years ago, his giveaways are down almost 50%. It’s no wonder his defensive numbers are so much better. He’s no longer getting himself in trouble.
This methodical style is letting Doughty’s offense age gracefully as well:
He only jumps into the fray when he sees daylight in front of him. Otherwise, he’s content to orchestrate from the blue line. He makes pinpoint passes in all three zones and does well to alternate between shooting to score and shooting for deflections and rebounds.
Oh, and there’s one situation in which he’s undoubtedly better now than when he was in his prime: the power play. He’s grown much more effective as a shooter, changing the angle to uncover a lane for his wrister or resetting the action until he can find the room he needs to uncork a one-timer. Since he’s a strong passer too, the puck moves fluidly and L.A. can threaten opponents from multiple locations. Consequently, he’s riding career-high numbers on the man advantage.
Doughty just looks like himself again. At his worst, he was far too active for his own good. He’s settled down lately, and his stock is soaring as a result. In two short years, he’s returned from being a potential millstone to an all-situations rock—and it’s no coincidence that the 27-17-7 Kings are creeping back toward their winning ways.