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Drew Doughty's journey to greatness coincides with Kings' playoff breakout

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

There was the goal, of course. Drew Doughty raced up ice, weaved between two Devils at the blue line, used another Devil as a screen in the right circle, and whipped the puck past the goaltender, stick side, just inside the left post. It was a display of skill reminiscent of Scott Niedermayer or Ray Bourque or even Bobby Orr. It was artistry.

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Drew Doughty's coast-to-coast goal in Game 2 was a thing of beauty. (Getty)

But Doughty did more than give the Los Angeles Kings a 1-0 lead Saturday night in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. He kept his head up at the blue line, stayed patient, adjusted and got his shot through. He stepped up on the right-wing boards and nailed New Jersey captain Zach Parise. He diffused the Devils' forecheck, making slick, subtle plays behind his own goal line, and started the breakout. Oh, and he almost scored the winner in overtime, too, toe-dragging, finding a shooting lane, whipping the puck past Martin Brodeur again, only to watch it skid wide this time.

As Scotty Bowman was saying even before Game 2: "He's playing with a lot of purpose now. He's not just playing offense. He's a great player."

Bowman, the greatest coach in hockey history, does not throw around the word "great." He coached great defensemen from Doug Harvey to Nicklas Lidstrom. He named a son after Bobby Orr. But as he watches from his home in Buffalo as a senior advisor to the Chicago Blackhawks, he sees something special. He reminds you that before the 2008 NHL draft, the question was who should go first – Doughty or Steven Stamkos. The Tampa Bay Lightning picked Stamkos, who hit 60 goals this season and already has 179 in his career at age 22. The Kings took Doughty next.

"Look at the player Stamkos is now," Bowman said. "He's a one-man machine. And Doughty, it's taken him a little longer, but he's a control player now."

That means he controls the game. Doughty is a big reason why the Kings are only two wins away from the first Stanley Cup in their 45-year history. But when Bowman says it has taken Doughty "a little longer," that doesn’t mean it has taken him long, even if it seems that way.

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Doughty is only 22, too, and defense is supposed to be a difficult position to master because of all the responsibilities and complexities that come with it. That's hard to keep in mind with a precocious talent like Doughty, who accomplished so much and landed such a big contract so quickly but still had so much to learn.

Lidstrom just retired after a near-perfect 20-year NHL career, but he was a third-round pick who entered the league at 21, joined a good team and was overlooked for years. Doughty has never been overlooked.

"I've never seen him play poorly," said Kings coach Darryl Sutter, speaking in relative terms. "I think that's part of the problem, right? I think the expectations that are put on him, they're not real."

Expectations soared in 2009-10. Doughty made the Canadian Olympic team, began the Vancouver Games as the seventh defenseman and earned a promotion by the second period of the opener. He logged major minutes at the absolute highest level and won a gold medal. He finished the NHL season with 16 goals, 59 points and a plus-20 rating, and he was a finalist for the Norris Trophy, which goes to the league's best defenseman. He was 20 years old.

The Detroit Red Wings' Mike Babcock, who coached Team Canada in Vancouver, said Doughty has been "touched by God" – an expression he uses for the game's most gifted players. But the big man works in mysterious ways, and he can humble you. He humbled Doughty.

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Doughty's talent thrust him into the spotlight quickly, making it easy to forget that he's only 22. (Getty)

Already anointed as the Norris favorite in 2010-11, his third NHL season, Doughty suffered a concussion that October. He got off to a slow start offensively. Coaches aren't stupid, and they started game-planning for him. Opponents tried to hit him every time he made a breakout pass. They tried to jump in front of him so he couldn't join the rush, forcing him to stop and start, ruining his rhythm. They paid special attention on the power play so he couldn't blast his shot through. His power-play goals dropped from nine to five. He finished with 11 goals, 40 points and a plus-13 rating – pretty good for a 21-year-old defenseman, but not good enough for a Drew Doughty.

"I think that's the hardest thing for a young defenseman to acquire, the ability to play mistake-free at the other blue line, because the defensemen have to make decisions," Bowman said. "How many times did you see Nick's shot blocked? Hardly at all."

Then came the contract. Doughty had leverage as a restricted free agent, and he used it by sitting out of training camp in September. The Kings gave him an eight-year, $56 million deal, giving him a higher average salary than even star center Anze Kopitar. They were paying for potential.

Now he had to live up to it.

"I had all that pressure on me, I was thinking about it too much, and I wasn't myself," Doughty said. "I think when I'm at my best, I'm just having fun. I love coming to the rink every day, hanging out with the boys, whatever it is – make jokes on the ice, make jokes off the ice. I had all that stress. I had never really had to deal with that before. It was tough on me."

It's hard to feel sorry for a guy who refused to sign until he was paid more than any of his teammates, especially because of how he looked after missing camp. Doughty has had weight issues since junior. You could take the "t" out of his last name at times. This was one of those times.

"He had a lot of weight on him early on, and the reality is, he's a young player," said Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell, a 35-year-old vet. "He was behind because he wasn't skating with the rest of us."

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When Doughty suffered a separated shoulder early in the season, things went from bad to worse. "I was pissed," Doughty said. "I wasn't happy. I came back still upset that I had missed all those games and missed camp and missed everything. I think that just took a toll on me, and that's why I didn't perform the way I could."

Doughty struggled while the team struggled. There was no reason why a team with a puck-moving defenseman as talented as Doughty and forwards as talented as Kopitar, Mike Richards and Dustin Brown couldn't score and couldn't win. But the Kings were last in the league in offense and out of the playoff picture.

Assistant coach John Stevens pushed Doughty in practice, trying to keep him from coasting on his talent. Stevens said he studied Doughty's 59-point season and was "amazed" by how few of Doughty's points came off the rush. Most came from the blue line. Stevens told him to join the rush more often – not in a risky way, supporting the forwards closely as the fourth guy on the breakout, creating outnumbered situations – but he also told him to improve at the offensive blue line. Keep your head up. Make moves to throw off your opponents. Find lanes to get the puck to the net.

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When Sutter replaced Terry Murray in December, he saw a classic case of a young talent. "They're sort of thrown into the spotlight instead of learning how to handle it," he said. "He plays a lot of minutes, and he's looked on as an offensive player. He's a high-paid player, all those things. There's a lot of pressure that comes with that. They put a lot of pressure on themselves. You take a little bit of that off by just sort of minimizing what they have to do out on the ice."

Sutter emphasized and enhanced the little things Stevens was already teaching, showing Doughty and the other defensemen what to look for at the offensive blue line. "It's better to kind of miss wide, kind of do the off-the-boards play, rather than hit the shinpads, because we were doing that a lot," Doughty said. "Nothing's worse than when the forwards work their butts off in the offensive zone, cycling, getting hit, and they get the puck back to you, and it's blocked and out of the zone. So we've worked on that a lot, and I think we're a lot better at it."

February 9, 2012. Sunrise, Florida. The Kings lost to the Panthers, 3-1, and Doughty was minus-1. But Doughty scored, and he felt different. "That was the best I felt all season," Doughty said. "I was at the top of my game. I played good on both ends of the ice, and I thought I was one of the best players on the ice. I think that's when I started to turn things around and felt good."

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Doughty's improvement and the Kings' improvement have gone hand-in-hand.

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Doughty re-emerged as a force for L.A. late in the season, and has been vital in the playoffs. (Getty

There is no doubt he has been a catalyst for their success. "I think anytime you have a defenseman that plays 25 minutes a game and plays in all situations, it's not surprising that when he plays well, it has a big effect on how the team plays," Stevens said.

But there is no doubt that how the team has played has helped Doughty, too. Murray wanted to slow down the game; Sutter has wanted to speed it up. "We've become a quicker team," Stevens said. "We do things quicker. We attack more as a group." Jeff Carter arrived before the trade deadline, adding offensive punch and slotting the forwards better. Slava Voynov came up from the minors, stabilizing the defense corps. All of that has helped bring out Doughty's skills and increase everyone's production.

The Kings finished the regular season second-to-last in offense, and they earned the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. But they're scoring enough now in front of outstanding goaltender Jonathan Quick, and they're on a 14-2 run through these playoffs – a run the NHL hasn't seen anything like since the 1988 Edmonton Oilers went 16-2.

Doughty finished the regular season with 10 goals and 36 points. He was minus-2. He has three goals and 12 points in the playoffs. He is plus-12. Though Quick is the favorite for the Conn Smythe Trophy, which goes to the playoffs' most valuable player, Doughty is in the conversation.

"It's a moment you have to enjoy and embrace," Doughty said. "At this stage of the year, I want to be at my best. The way I'm going to do that, be successful, is having fun and being myself."

He is 22. He has made a long journey in a short time. After he scored that goal Saturday night, he curled toward the boards, pumped a fist and screamed: "Yeah, baby! Woo! [Bleep], yeah!" He's acting his age. He's not playing like it.

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