Sitting at his locker Saturday night, Drew Doughty turned and patted the empty seat in the stall beside him. Tobias Bjornfot, the Kings’ 18-year-old rookie defenseman, had already up-and-left, sneaking out of the dressing room while Doughty faced a swarm of questions about Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid.
Still, as he’s done all preseason, Doughty made sure his fresh-faced defense partner, who played next to Doughty and often against McDavid in the Kings’ loss to the Oilers, wasn’t left out.
“I thought my buddy Bjorns played great against [McDavid],” Doughty said. “He had some good battles with him too.”
Since Bjornfot was drafted in the first round by the Kings this summer, there have been few moments in which he hasn’t fit in on the ice. Initially expected to start to the season in his native Sweden, the smooth-skating, puck-moving prospect took advantage of the Kings’ dearth of left-handed defenseman during training camp and ascended to the top blue-line pairing.
“He’s mature beyond his years,” coach Todd McLellan said. “He started through rookie camp, and we had a date picked where maybe we’d be sending him back to Sweden. He missed that flight, he missed the flight the next day, and he still hasn’t gone to the airport. That has nothing to do with us. It has everything to do with him.”
But where natural ability allowed Bjornfot to make a smooth transition to the NHL on the rink, the adjustments to everything away from the game offered a different challenge.
He speaks English, but is still adapting to North American culture. He doesn’t have a driver’s license and, according to teammates, was slow to begin speaking up or asking questions.
The first time Bjornfot walked into the Kings’ established locker room, he had little rapport with anyone on the roster. Like a kid starting out at a new school, it would have been easy for him to feel unwelcome and out of place.
Instead, “I feel comfortable,” he said. “They’ve taken care of me.”
Doughty, in particular, took Bjornfot under his wing.
“I’m really excited to play with him,” Doughty said. “To help him along.”
Doughty can relate to Bjornfot’s situation. Before he became a five-time All-Star, he too broke into the NHL as a teenager in 2008-09. Since then, Doughty has become one of the league’s top defensemen, known for his free-wheeling approach on and off the ice.
With Bjornfot, however, Doughty has tapped into another side of his personality. During preseason games, he talked Bjornfot through shifts, directing him where to go and what to look for.
In practice Monday, he patted Bjornfot on the back of the head after the rookie rifled a goal from the point. He’s made positive reinforcement an emphasis. It has paid dividends in Bjornfot’s rapid development.
“Maybe I’m a little more on the nicer side with him, because he’s so young,” the 29-year-old Doughty said. “If a guy was around my age, I’d maybe yell at him rather than tell him what to do.”
Doughty recognized Bjornfot’s potential early in training camp. With Doughty’s usual partner, Derek Forbort, out with a back injury, the team tried several left-handed defensemen next to him. Bjornfot stood out, especially in the offensive zone.
“His moves on the blue line are pretty special,” Doughty said. “He’s got great vision. He’s not afraid to throw a sauce pass over a couple sticks. He’s not afraid to go under a stick to make a pass, which a lot of young guys would be scared to do. He’s just playing freely and having fun.”
As final roster cuts approached, Doughty made it known that he wanted Bjornfot — who can play up to nine games this season without it counting as a service year in his entry-level contract — to stay.
“Drew didn’t knock on my door and say, ‘Hey we need to keep this guy,’ ” McLellan said. “But I did get a fair amount of feedback from the rest of the coaching staff, some of the trainers, about how excited Drew was to have Tobi here and how excited he was to be playing with him.”
By then, Bjornfot had already sold the coaching staff on his talent.
“From the development camp to the rookie camp to as we stand here today,” Kings assistant Trent Yawney said ahead of the season-opener, “he’s just been steady. … He gets it, he moves [the puck], he knows where he’s going with it. At times he makes, what you know is a difficult play or a difficult read, he makes it look easy.”
Support from Doughty, among the most vocal leaders in the Kings’ locker room, was extra confirmation. Instead of being isolated, Bjornfot became included.
On Saturday against the Oilers, he logged 12 minutes 36 seconds of ice time and was a minus-one in plus-minus rating.
Though McLellan shied away from Bjornfot late in the game, with the Kings trying to protect one-goal leads (which they twice blew in an eventual 6-5 loss), the rookie was matched up against McDavid’s line during many of his early shifts, sharing the ice with the Oilers’ captain for more than five minutes.
“They’re such skilled players,” Bjornfot said. “It was hard in the beginning, but it’s a dream to play against the best player in the world.”
Bjornfot smiled as he spoke, sitting Monday at his new locker in the visiting dressing room in Calgary, again positioned next to Doughty’s. He looked like a player who had always dreamed of reaching the NHL, but still couldn’t quite believe it has actually happened.
Doughty sounds almost as happy about it too.
“I love playing with him,” Doughty said. “He can handle playing against the big boys.”