Drew Doughty and Erik Karlsson find NHL elite with different styles
LOS ANGELES – Comparing Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty and Ottawa Senators blueliner Erik Karlsson involves heavy praise for both.
They’re high-octane players in the NHL and arguably the top two defensemen in the league.
Said an Eastern Conference scout, “I wouldn’t say one is much better than the other.“
Said Los Angeles Kings defenseman Luke Schenn, “They’re both horses.”
Said a Western Conference scout, “Well I mean they’re both way up in the top of the league.”
Said a former NHL coach, “Karlsson is very dynamic, he’s one of the best skaters in the world and one of the best skaters in the league for sure … I think Doughty is one of the best defensemen in the league. He’s one of the best two-way defensemen in the league.”
Karlsson is an offensive dynamo who scores points at a higher rate than any blueliner in the league. Doughty is considered by hockey insiders as the more rugged two-way player with defensive skill to match his offense.
Recently, a reporter asked Karlsson if this is like the Paul Coffey/Ray Bourque debate of the 1980s. Coffey was the top offensive blueliner of his generation, while Bourque was considered the type of all-situation defenseman a team needed as a cornerstone.
“I don’t think you can compare two players equally,” Karlsson said. “I think everyone in a way is a bit different but people try and people want to compare and have something to match up against but at the same time I think we’re similar players but I don’t think we’re the same player.”
But in the prism of hockey, there needs to be comparison because of how greatness is defined. Karlsson has won two Norris Trophies annually “given to the defenseman who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position.”
Doughty hasn’t won a Norris, but he’s won two Stanley Cups with the Kings and two Olympic gold medals with Team Canada.
Both were picked in the 2008 NHL Draft, Doughty second-overall to the Kings and Karlsson 15th overall to Ottawa.
“(Karlsson’s) an unbelievable player. He’s a lot of fun to watch. He’s someone that I think I can learn a lot from,” Doughty said “His offensive skills are just out of this world with some of the things he does not too many players in the world can do. When I watch the Senators play I pay special attention to him because there’s a lot of things I can learn from him and I have learned a lot from him over the years.”
Karlsson’s 45 points in 44 games played are tops amongst defensemen. Brent Burns ranks second with 40 points in 42 games. Doughty ranks 18th in the NHL with 25 points in 42 games played.
In his first Norris Trophy season, Karlsson had 78 points. The next closest player was Brian Campbell with 53 points.
The Senators are a much better team with Karlsson on the ice (he averages 28:39 of ice-time per-game to lead the NHL) because they possess the puck in the offensive zone to a much higher degree.
According to War on Ice, when Karlsson is on the ice, Ottawa’s CF% is 51.62 percent 5-on-5 which means his team holds onto the puck more relative to their opponent. He’s a plus-8.19 on CF% relative meaning when he plays, his team possesses the puck to a much higher degree than when he’s not playing.
Wrote TSN’s Travis Yost in a late December piece about Karlsson and the Sens:
For years, the Senators were a great team with Karlsson and a very average team without him. That might be good enough for playoff conversation, but it’s not good enough for any kind of Stanley Cup talk. Not even close.
Hockey people agree.
“He’s like a Coffey almost,” the former coach said. “He jumps in the play so well. He leads the rush. He’ll be the first guy in the rush and he’ll be the last guy coming up to get the pass. He sees the ice. He has great skills. He has great skating ability. He’s the best skater in the league I think and that’s the way he is. He’s so dynamic offensively. He’s in the rush every time he’s out there.”
But the former coach and the two scouts, who spoke on a condition of anonymity for this piece, agree that Karlsson’s defense – while much improved from earlier in his career – lags behind other NHL defensemen.
“I wouldn’t say he’s a complete defensive liability but he was more of a liability than he is now,” the Eastern Conference scout said. “I think any time you’re considered an offensive defenseman, you’re taking chances and risks. If you’re up in the rush and you shoot the puck and it misses the net and it’s going the other way, obviously you better get on your horse and get going.”
Also at 6-foot, 191 pounds the Western Conference scout thinks Karlsson has some trouble with the bigger, brawnier top-line forwards in his own end.
“It’s like the centers going up against the centers. Out West, it’s easy just to think (Ryan) Getzlaf and (Anze) Kopitar and (Joe) Thornton and (Martin) Hanzal, when they face off against other good centers like Bryan Little and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, they push those guys aside. They’re just physically too much for them to handle,” the scout said. “I get his offensive abilities, which are off the charts, but his (defensive) effort wasn’t there. But now at least he has an effort. I’m not going to say he’s a great defensive player, but more times than not his effort is there and that’s what you have to have from those guys.”
But this is somewhat the traditional view of a defenseman. Karlsson’s defensive strength comes from his ability to drive offense and prevent scoring chances by keeping the play in the other team's zone. Said Jonathan Willis of Bleacher Report:
Karlsson, the best defenceman in the league this season, is at the forefront of a change in his position. Increasingly, defencemen are expected to be mobile, capable with the puck and able both to support the attack and to keep the opposition from even entering the defensive zone.
Because of his size Karlsson needs to defend differently through his smarts and hockey sense.
“He’s very strong. I don’t think he gets enough credit for how physically strong he is,” Ottawa forward Kyle Turris said. “He’s very smart and his anticipation, I’ve never seen anything like it. He can break up plays nobody can see but him.”
But this ability to move the puck out of danger quickly, if not physically, is how defensemen are built these days. Doughty isn't much bigger than Karlsson at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds.
“It’s very hard for them to go up against players like Getzlaf and Kopitar. You’re going to give some in those (defensive) situations “ the Western Conference scout said. “But what they bring with the puck and the ability, the new breed of NHL defensemen, if you can go back and retrieve the puck and get it moving up the ice, you can play in the NHL forever now.”
While Karlsson has fulfilled his NHL potential, with Doughty there’s always wonder of if he has an even higher ceiling. Since Doughty notched 59 points in 2009-10 – his second full NHL season – his highest total was 46 last year, when he finished second to Karlsson in Norris Trophy voting. That was good enough for 14th in defenseman scoring. This year he’s on pace for around 50 points. Is he a high-level offensive player like Karlsson, or a 40-50 point guy?
But with two Cups and two Olympic gold medals with Team Canada, he has that sort of ‘big-game’ type player aura around him, which is important for scouts.
“Doughty has his history and the Cups and I think the thing about Doughty is that he can always raise his game to another level. He can cruise through some season games and in maybe less than a ‘wow,’” the Western Conference scout said. “But his upper end level is probably as high as anybody’s.”
Doughty does see some offensive similarities between himself and Karlsson They both have the same openings on the ice, but Doughty says he’s choosier when it comes to picking his spots.
“I think I do. I don’t play the full two minutes of the power play like he does, but besides that I basically have the same green light he has,” Doughty said. “I choose to use it a little differently than he does.”
Doughty’s also had the luxury of playing on the highly-talented Kings. He’s played a big role every year, but he’s never had to be ‘the man’ on LA like Karlsson with Ottawa.
“Because of Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Quick. I think you get bailed out a little bit more when you make a mistake,” the Eastern Conference scout said. “Whereas in Ottawa I don’t think they have that kind of depth.”
Also, Doughty has been tasked the last several years as a developmental aid for other players in LA’s system. He helped turn Jake Muzzin into a top-four defenseman. This season Brayden McNabb’s gone from highly-touted healthy scratch at points last season, into a top-pairing defender with Doughty.
"(Playing with him) allowed me to relax and just trust myself, and when I did make mistakes he was there to help me out,” Muzzin said. “When you play with a lot of elite players like you have here, you can try stuff because they think at the same level and the high level you do. It’s nice to be able to go out there and try stuff and know you have support and know you can get away with it. Sometimes it doesn’t work out but there’s someone there to help you.”
Doughty’s CF% 5-on-5 with the Kings is 58.19 percent and his CF% rel is plus-3.44.
But there are some more issues beyond either’s control that lend to how their viewed. The comparison between the two extends to their coaches and how both choose to deploy both players.
Doughty is primarily a match-up defenseman who is called upon to switch and change with how coach Darryl Sutter sees line adjustments. Karlsson is asked to play his game regardless of his opponent. Both styles work, just in different ways.
Doughty averages 2:55 of power play time per-game while Karlsson plays 4:48 with the man-advantage. Doughty averages 2:57 of shorthanded ice-time per-game while Karlsson plays 1:06. Doughty averages 33.9 shifts per-game (27:56 of ice-time per-game) while Karlsson averages 26.9.
“(Karlsson’s) like another forward on the rush because he’s always up in the play all the time so they always have four guys in the play,” the former coach said. “Doughty can play power play, he can play penalty kill, he can play a speed game, he can play a grind game, he can do anything you want. He has more defensive abilities than Karlsson. This guy’s a good player, and he logs lots of minutes every year.”
How would either look if they switched exact roles with their teams? For example, if Karlsson was put on the Kings and played Doughty’s minutes, how would he do? If Doughty was put on the Senators to play Karlsson’s slot, would he be the same type of offensive dynamo.
“I think Karlsson would have better numbers because the Kings have a better supporting cast,” the Eastern Conference scout said. “If maybe you were to put Doughty in that situation where he was more offensive and doesn’t have to worry about the penalty kill as much and blocking shots, maybe he’s able to do more offensively and vice-versa in LA if Karlsson is taking shots off the ankles, maybe it’s a little harder to be as fresh and get up the ice like he can.”
Joked the former coach, “Right now, every time Karlsson gets beat they just throw him right back out there. Darryl Sutter might not do that.”
But really, what sets them apart is how badly they want to win. Both have hit this level because of the care in their games. Ask Karlsson about his perceived defensive shortcomings and you sense a level of anger coming from him. No matter how many times he proves he’s an able defender he always gets this question.
“It’s one of those things that since I got here and will probably have to deal with until my career is over,” Karlsson said. “I’m comfortable in all aspects of the game. I don’t just play offense, I play defense too and play at the end of games when we’re up. I think my defensive game is almost as strong as my offensive game.”
Doughty’s teammates marvel at how he’s still able to produce, even with his assignments in the physical Western Conference.
“When you’re playing with him you’re out there most likely against the best players in the game,” McNabb said. “When you’re out there against the top players you’re mostly focused on defense. To put points up like he’s doing is pretty incredible.”
But as with most great players, their drive sets them apart. Flip-flop them and either will thrive. They both want to be the best at their position, but go about it in different ways.
Said the Eastern Conference scout, “At the end of the day I think they both would succeed because they both come across as very competitive guys who want to be the best they can be at whatever their role is.”
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Josh Cooper is an editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @joshuacooper