EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) –– When Drew Doughty joined the Los Angeles Kings, he could walk around town unnoticed. Almost nobody at the supermarket or on Manhattan Beach realized this slightly pudgy teenager was the No. 2 overall pick in the NHL draft, bound for hockey stardom.
After six dynamite seasons with the Kings, including a Stanley Cup title and two Olympic gold medals, the perk of anonymity is all but gone for the defenseman who has led the Kings toward another championship this spring.
“It’s changed drastically,” Doughty said wistfully. “I don’t know if I like it better or not. For sure, I don’t like it better, actually.
“Back in the day, we could roll in anywhere, and there’s no way anyone would know who you were, no possible way. Now, it seems like everywhere we do go, we are getting recognized.”
The hockey world is getting another up-close look at Doughty as Los Angeles chases its second title in three years, and Doughty is proving he can handle any scrutiny. He has been at the top of his limitless game during the Kings’ drive through the postseason heading to Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals against the New York Rangers on Saturday.
Doughty is a favorite for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the NHL’s playoff MVP, leading all defensemen with 17 points in 22 postseason games while playing nearly 28 minutes per night. He is the Kings’ fifth-leading scorer and their defensive backbone, playing on both ends of the rink with a furious energy that isn’t always present during the regular-season grind.
Doughty played a major role on both ends of the scoreboard in the finals opener. His overaggressive mistake led to a first-period goal for the Rangers, but he answered with a spectacular individual play for the tying goal in the second period, toe-dragging around Derek Dorsett and beating Henrik Lundqvist with an expertly placed shot.
“He’s a great player, and he made a great play on that,” Dorsett said. “We know what he’s capable of doing.”
Although Doughty was a dominant defenseman by his second NHL season, earning a Norris Trophy nomination and a gold medal at 20, his development hasn’t been smooth.
His mental approach to hockey has always been precocious, and he still plays largely on instinct. He still needed a few years of experience — and the help of coach Darryl Sutter — to turn into the game-dominating defenseman currently positioned to keep the Kings in contention for another decade.
His teammates are no longer surprised by Doughty’s abilities, which he developed on the rinks of London, Ontario. Doughty started out as a two-way center, but switched to defense early on when one of his hockey camps ran short on defensemen.
“I’ve never been on a team where I’m at the top of any one single attribute, except my mind,” Doughty said. “I think the game well. I study the game well. I’m always watching other people to see how I can get better.”
That studious approach is easy to miss when Doughty is playing with the fire that he demonstrated in the Cup finals opener. Doughty lost his temper after the officials missed a New York stick hitting him in the face, and he got even angrier when he was whistled for his own penalty moments later.
“Maybe instead of just yelling at them, I can just talk to them, or just completely ignore it,” Doughty said. “But when I’m mad, I’m playing better hockey myself. I like being fired up.”
Doughty is increasingly ranked among the game’s best defensemen in recent years, but his versatility leads to multiple comparisons. Sutter sees elements of Chris Chelios’ game in Doughty, while others cite Scott Niedermayer and Nicklas Lidstrom.
“Not many guys in the league can do what he does,” Kings captain Dustin Brown said. “He has an impact on everybody on the ice when he’s playing at his best. The other team has to watch him all the time when he takes charge like that. It’s good to have him on your side.”
Doughty has five years left on his contract with the Kings, and he sees no reason why they won’t be a Stanley Cup contender every season and beyond. After years of patiently assembling young talent around Doughty and Anze Kopitar, the Kings are loaded.
At the ripe old age of 24, Doughty has been around long enough to know success beats anonymity every time.
“A lot of us that are on this team right now were on the L.A. Kings when they weren’t a very good team, and it was a frustrating time,” Doughty said. “To finally turn that around and now come to the rink happy knowing you have a chance to win every night, confident you’re going to win every night, it’s a great feeling.”