Does Drew Doughty give the Kings a $77 million problem?
Sports/Games

Does Drew Doughty give the Kings a $77 million problem?

A player who was once arguably the most bankable cornerstone of the Kings’ glory years could now be the least certain element of their rebuild.

Defenseman Drew Doughty – he of two Stanley Cups and two Olympic gold medals – has seen a marked decline over the past two seasons in a number of statistical categories, both traditional and advanced.

That may be particularly troubling considering that Doughty’s eight-year, $88 million contract makes him the second highest-paid defenseman in NHL history. He will count for $77 million against the salary cap over the next seven seasons as the Kings integrate their highly touted prospects and a forthcoming high draft pick into their organization.

Doughty, 30, won the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman in 2016, and he was a finalist in 2015 and 2018. In a player poll this season, Doughty still placed fourth in votes for league’s top defenseman.

“Usually I’m top two or three but I wasn’t even top three this year, so that’s one I want, that’s the only (category) I care to be on at all,” Doughty said in an April teleconference.

But on Thursday, the Kings announced their annual awards voted by the local media and Doughty was not even named the top defenseman on the Kings, an award that went to Matt Roy on a team that has struggled two seasons in a row.

Doughty had earned that honor in 10 of the past 11 seasons. Willie Mitchell won the award in 2012, when he was paired with Doughty. Doughty has won the award twice as many times as any other Kings defenseman. Current general manager Rob Blake ranks second having won the award five times.

For Doughty’s part, he said on the same call that Roy was a pleasant surprise to him. While Roy had a reputation as a steady depth player, Doughty said Roy’s managing to be a plus-player on a Kings roster riddled with minuses and flashes of offensive ability exceeded any reasonable expectations.

“He really impressed me. He’s a great guy and a hard worker. He’ll be a guy that we’ll want to keep around in our organization for a long time.” Doughty said.

Doughty also said that the “run and gun” nature of today’s game does not suit him as well as the more precise play-making that was more common earlier in Doughty’s career. Yet he still has the respect of his peers even as he has had to adapt stylistically and despite seeing his numbers drop.

Doughty led the NHL in defensive point shares in 2016, 2017 and 2018, with totals above 7 in each season. But his 2.9 last season represented a career-worst figure and his 3.3 this season tied his previous low from the shortened 2013 season.

Last season, his Corsi and Fenwick for percentages were both below 50 for the first time in his career and his negative-34 plus-minus rating was a career worst.

Though he’s long been known as a two-way defenseman rather than an offense-first rearguard, Doughty’s scoring production has also dipped, particularly at even strength. In 2018, Doughty scored a career-best 39 points at even strength, but has notched just 40 points (including a mere three goals) five-on-five cumulatively over the past two seasons.

That decline has sparked a debate among analysts, particularly those focused on advanced stats. Andrew Berkshire penned a defense of Doughty on Sportsnet, which was followed by rebukes of Doughty penned by two analysts, including former Toronto Marlies assistant coach Jack Han.

Berkshire looked at Doughty’s numbers over the past five seasons. He argued that despite some statistical backsliding and some substantive decline in his scoring and transition play, Doughty remained an elite defenseman. His best qualities have been the reliability with which he moved the puck and his unparalleled ability to break out of the defensive zone, both of which remained at elite levels even in the past two seasons, Berkshire wrote.

Doughty has been extremely durable in his career, missing just 19 games since his debut in 2008. He’s been a constant near the top of the time on ice leaderboard. He has played difficult minutes with tough matchups, plenty of defensive-zone starts (his last two seasons have seen his highest percentage of d-zone faceoffs) and an assortment of defense partners – he had 10 different ones this season alone, playing with almost every Kings defenseman.

But analyst JFresh argued that Doughty has become the worst player in the league with this level of responsibility and quantity of minutes.

His critique notes that while Doughty does play against top competition – only Ottawa’s Thomas Chabot has a heavier workload against tougher opponents – even adjusting numbers for factors like competition and defensive responsibility, Doughty did not have a strong campaign on either side of the puck this past season. His five-on-five offense placed in the bottom tier of the league. Defensively, his shortcomings seem tough to pin on his defense partners or the Kings’ system as they were above average at even strength defensively by season’s end.

Han took a look at game film, assessing Doughty’s play with detailed notes that suggested that while Doughty’s technique, skill and talent remain outstanding, strong effort may not always be there from Doughty. A lack of urgency, the absence of intensity, an unwillingness to work to get open and a tendency to force plays rather than skating into position were all in Han’s remarks. So, too, were flashes of superlative awareness on both sides of the puck, sound passing to create offense on the power play and some solid physical play.

All three analyses, however, suggested Doughty could fare better in a situation that was more competitive and in which he was better supported.

So who is the real Drew Doughty? For the Kings, that is a $77 million question, the answer to which could buoy or torpedo their rebuild.

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Susan Scott
Susan Scott contributes to our Sports/Games section. She is a sports enthusiast and brings energy and warmth to the team with her constant quips and snippets from the sporting world. Her dedication to sports leaks into her work as well. Her stories are unique perspectives into the sporting world that take the ordinary man into the shoes of the athletes. She is a talented sportsperson herself, with many accolades under her belt already. What stops her from becoming a professional athlete is her inclination towards writing for sports more than sports itself !

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