Drew Doughty had won an Olympic gold medal and had been a Norris Trophy finalist when John Stevens joined the Kings’ coaching staff in June 2010 to oversee the defensemen.
At 20, Doughty thought he knew it all, and who could blame him? His early success had pretty much given him a pass even when he wasn’t focused or prepared. “My first couple years I would kind of get by making those mistakes and no one would really say anything to me or be hard on me with it,” he said.
Stevens, who had played 53 NHL games and bounced around the minor leagues for years, thought Doughty wasn’t tapping his full potential. Stevens let Doughty know it.
“When he first came in, we’d kind of butt heads all the time,” Doughty said. “We kind of didn’t agree on plays.”
Stevens said his tough-love approach was the same he takes with every young player, but this was different in many ways.
“I was just trying to get him really focused in on the details, the preparation and the practice habits and all that stuff that I knew could make him an even better player,” Stevens said. “On top of that, Drew might be one of the most gifted, talented players ever and I was probably one of the least gifted, talented players ever, so we have two different personalities.
“I was really trying to get a marriage of his really great, God-given talent and his commitment to focus on details and fundamentals. To his credit, he’s done that.”
Stevens’ advice eventually struck a chord with Doughty, who has emerged from a difficult season that began with a contract impasse to be a leader in the Kings’ drive to the Stanley Cup Final.
Doughty is a more disciplined and complete player than he was as a Norris runner-up in 2009-10. He contributed a goal and an assist to the victory that clinched the Western Conference title Tuesday and has two goals and 10 points in 14 games. He’s also plus-10 defensively while averaging 25 minutes 52 seconds of ice time, some of it hard minutes in a shutdown role.
“I think the No. 1 thing was my practice habits. I’d go into practice just going through the motions, just kind of doing what I had to do to perform well in practice, I guess you could say,” Doughty said. “He kind of made me realize that you’re not going to get anywhere, you’re not going to get any better, just going through the motions. You have to work on your shot. You have to work on making sure every pass is tape-to-tape and you’ve almost got to focus in practice like you do in a game, and I’m a lot better at that.
“I’m feeling great on the ice. I’m jumping in the play more than I ever have in my career and I’m able to do that pretty easily. I’m not getting tired. I can play those big minutes and be able to do that every shift. A lot of that has to do with really pushing myself in practice.”
Stevens credited Rob Scuderi, Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene — the Kings’ defense-oriented defensemen — with being good examples for developing that aspect of Doughty’s game.
“Drew’s become a really good penalty killer with Rob Scuderi as well. That’s not something he’s been given. He’s earned that,” Stevens said.
“Clearly the veteran guys on our team have really had a positive impact on Drew and his evolution as a very good defensive defenseman when he’s called upon to do that. He defends as good as anybody. His offense, obviously, speaks for itself. I don’t think people realize just how good his feet are and how good his position is and how good he is in one-on-one situations.”
Scuderi, Doughty’s usual defense partner, is impressed by Doughty’s evolution.
“As talented as he is offensively, he cares just as much defensively and he’s been dominating at both ends of the ice for us,” Scuderi said.
“He’s becoming — not shockingly — an expert at breaking the puck out and sometimes, for a guy as talented as he is, just making the safe play when it needs to be made. For all the talent he has, he could try to force plays, but he doesn’t. He takes the easy way out if he has to and there’s nothing there. That’s something that you can’t teach. It comes with maturity. He’s matured a lot in the last month.”
Reaching this point wasn’t easy for Doughty, who missed almost all of training camp before signing an eight-year, $56-million deal that made him the team’s highest-paid player by average annual value. The stalemate had turned public sentiment against him and he struggled on the ice, though not because he wasn’t in game shape.
“It was more the pressure that I was dealing with. I knew I signed a big contract and I knew that I had to play up to that standard and I obviously didn’t for the most part of this season,” said Doughty, who had 10 goals, 36 points and a minus-two defensive rating in 77 games.
“But now that it’s over with and the playoffs have rolled around, it’s something I put in the back of my mind. I’m just going to focus on this playoff run, but I definitely want to come in next year and be playing the way I am right now.”
He could come back as the Conn Smythe winner, given to the most valuable player in the playoffs. Or a Stanley Cup champion. Or both.
“It’s crazy. You dream about it your whole life and now that it’s finally here, it puts a smile on your face every time you talk about it,” he said. “I remember talking to Mitchy in the dressing room in Phoenix and he said, ‘Man, you don’t even know how lucky you are. I’ve been around forever and this is my first time to get a shot at it.’
“I feel very fortunate that I can do this at a young age. And now it’s just a matter of we want that Cup and we’ve got to win it.”