2017-18 In Review: Why do we still doubt Drew Doughty?

The Norris Trophy-winning defenseman put together another All-Star season. But a few more steps remain for the alternate captain.

I’m a big part of that team, and I’ve got to try to bring us into those winning ways again.  I take the responsibility for that along with some of our other leaders. It’s not that they had to show me or prove to me anything for me to sign here. I’ve always wanted to be an LA Kings and want to stay an LA King.

That was Drew Doughty anticipating contract negotiations in April, when asked about how the Los Angeles Kings have only won one playoff game since winning the Stanley Cup in 2014.  The Kings made it clear that Doughty was their number one priority in the offseason, and Doughty has internalized the fact that he is the embodiment of the Cup window for his team.

On June 29 Doughty kept his word, agreeing to an eight-year, $88 million contract extension that will keep him with his favorite team growing up for perhaps the rest of his NHL playing career.  Doughty negotiated the contract himself, saving him and the team valuable dollars that would have gone to an agent.  It is an interesting sign that Doughty was thinking about the team’s interests as well as his own, quelling some of the natural instinct to accuse highly paid stars of greed.  It ended a wave of speculation after Doughty, known for his refreshing honesty in a save-face league, said he might test the waters of free agency in June 2017:

At first, I was going to make this blog a rant about whether the Kings would be hamstrung by paying the Norris Trophy winner $11 million per year, and whether trading him for several parts—that’s right, I said trading—would have served the Kings’ future better.  We have just seen last season the sputtering failure of the aging Chicago Blackhawks, who also have two $10 million stars.  Could the Windy City be a foreshadowing of the Kings?  As I wrote in last year’s Year in Review:

Previously, I wrote that the Kings’ window to contend for the Cup is only two more seasons, until Doughty’s current contract expires. (And the second year will come at a price, as the Kings won’t trade Doughty’s expiring contract as they need him for one more playoff push.) In two years, Kopitar, Brown, Carter, Gaborik, and Quick will all be well over age 30. Time is running out for the current Kings core.

By then, the Kings will be a completely different team. Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson will lead a Kings offense centered by Gabe Vilardi. Adrian Kempe and Jonny Brodzinski will provide additional offense....

Despite all of these roster changes, Doughty’s ability to make his teammates better, such as Muzzin and Forbort, is another well-documented aspect of his excellence. Will Drew Doughty be the anchor that holds this new, younger Kings core together? Or will $10 million per year be better spent elsewhere, on whatever the new needs of the Kings will be in two years?

But the Kings stole my thunder by signing yet another veteran, Ilya Kovalchuk, exhibiting their stubborn belief that their core can still contend for another Cup.  Management confirmed this view verbally in its 2018 State of the Franchise event for season ticket holders. As Jon Rosen wrote:

The viewpoint across management with the Kings is that this team is still in a Stanley Cup contention window. Both Robitaille and Blake stated in their media-exclusive interviews that, if healthy, they viewed the 2018-19 Kings as a team that can contend. Both men stressed that the Kings strength starts down the middle with a Top 3 of Kopitar-Carter-Kempe that is a major strength of the team. In his presentation during the event, Blake pointed to Carter’s injury last season as a major detriment to the depth of the 2017-18 Kings.

And the team’s view of Kovalchuk is rosy indeed:

In addition to Carter’s absence, Blake mentioned “elite scoring on the wings” as the other piece that the Kings missed. The number fluctuated a bit throughout the evening, depending on who or when it was asked, but it came down to estimating between 20 to 30 goals for the piece signed to fill that void, Ilya Kovalchuk, this season.

Like it or not, the core is glued together once more, perhaps for one last time.  And Kovalchuk is the new hope for veteran catalyst.  Doughty is a central, long-term part of the team’s plans.  He is being groomed to be the franchise player after Kopitar gets old.  The Kings will succeed or fail with him at the helm.  So the question becomes:

Rather than discuss the merits of trading Doughty for several parts, what more does Doughty need to do to help the team’s future?  In other words, why do we still doubt Doughty?

Ever still youthful and jubilant, the 28-year-old from London, Ontario has compiled an even better season than last.  His 50 assists are a huge jump from last season, and are second to centerpiece Anze Kopitar.  His 60 points are third after Kopitar and Dustin Brown.  His +23 rating is second after Brown.  The freer, puck-sharing system of John Stevens has benefited the Norris Trophy winner.

In terms of advanced statistics, his Corsi For percentage of 53.2 was second after Brown, among those who played more than 20 games.  He had slightly more offensive zone starts than defensive, reflecting the team’s belief that he is an offensive catalyst and not just a defensive wizard.  It is a relief that his average playing time is down—it has decreased gradually from a peak of 29:00 in 2014-15, to a more manageable 26:50 last season.

So it was statistically another impressive season for Doughty, but what remains missing?  Two items jump into view:

1) Consistency.  On March 10 he was on the ice for four goals against in a 7-4 blowout against the St. Louis Blues (a game I had the displeasure of attending at the Staples Center; I wanted a refund).  Doughty was on the ice for all five goals the New Jersey Devils scored against the Kings last season, as the Devils swept the season series.  And in the playoffs, the four-time All-Star was rendered entirely scoreless, with six shots on goal in three games.  Perhaps this illustrates Doughty’s importance best: in the 17 games in which Doughty had a minus rating, the Kings were 4-13.  That’s right, a less than .333 winning percentage.

For a $11 million man, it is not enough to play aggressively and check opponents.  In the same way a point guard in basketball facilitates the offense from the back court, Doughty needs to facilitate Kings scoring from the point when he is on the ice.  As amazing as Doughty is, he too has had some duds, and his duds are costing the team.

2) Emotions and temper.  This is by far the more important answer, as Doughty has directly cost his team games.  His horrible unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after being called for hooking in the third period against Chicago on March 3 spurred a Blackhawks comeback win that almost ruined the Kings’ playoff race.  In the playoffs, his head hit on William Carrier in the first game earned him a suspension for Game 2.  It led to a Vegas 2-0 series lead which proved insurmountable.

Here is more ugliness for you to see.  It is getting old and needs to stop:

It is embarrassing to the Kings, who have dubbed him alternate captain when several other worthy choices exist—including Dustin Brown who was stripped of the captaincy.  It is unbecoming of a second overall pick who is supposed to become the next face of the franchise.

It’s as simple as that.  The aging core of Kopitar, Brown, Jeff Carter, and Jonathan Quick cannot cover up for Doughty any longer.  The world-class talent, gifted with a childlike joy of the game, needs to refine and control his emotions.  The hot temper needs to transform into temperance for Doughty to bring his team to the top once again.

(Statistics courtesy Hockey Reference)