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2016-17 in Review: Is Drew Doughty worth $10 million to the Kings in 2019?

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The Kings roster will be completely different in two years as younger players replace the current aging core. Will Drew Doughty be the anchor that holds this new Kings team together?

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NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Los Angeles Kings Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

For the next month or two, we’ll be taking a look at the players who made the Los Angeles Kings’ 2016-17 season what it was: a crushing disappointment that got people fired an up-and-down journey which managed to be both unusual and familiar. Rather than the good-bad-future-grade format we’ve used in past seasons, we’ll ask a crucial question and answer it using it what we saw this year.

Is Drew Doughty worth $10 million to the Kings in 2019?

There is no question that an indispensable part of the core of the Kings is Drew Doughty. The second overall draft pick in 2008 was a Kings fan growing up. Now at age 27, Doughty has compiled an impressive resume: 2-time Stanley Cup winner, 3-time All-Star, Norris Trophy winner, and 2-time Olympic gold medalist. By all definitions, a successful career. And still more greatness to come.

To understand why the Kings value Doughty so highly, watch this video. High levels of skill, toughness, endurance, and leadership. The Kings organization produced the video to explain it for you:

Doughty has built a reputation for stopping odd-man rushes. Here, Doughty saves the shot—and the game—on a 2-on-1 chance when it seemed all hope was lost:

And here, Doughty makes Bob Miller’s final home game against the Chicago Blackhawks one to remember:

In 2016-17, Doughty has toned down the overly creative stickhandling and overly fancy passing that was too complex for his teammates in previous years to work with. But the enthusiasm hasn’t toned down, as seen in this overzealous attempt to chase the puck. (Sorry I couldn’t resist including this hilarity.)

The media have noticed his excellence. Doughty was ranked the number one defenseman in the NHL in August 2016 by NHL Network:

Doughty, 26, has been one of the best defensemen in the NHL for a number of seasons, and won the Norris Trophy for the first time in 2016. He didn't win the Conn Smythe Trophy in either of the Kings' Stanley Cup championship runs, but he would have been a worthy recipient either time. He has won Olympic gold medals twice, and was a critical part of Canada's success in both tournaments. He had 51 points last season (14 goals, 37 assists), the second-highest of his NHL career (59 points in 2009-10), and he's one of three defensemen to average more than 27 minutes per game of ice time during the past three seasons. Ryan Suter of the Minnesota Wild and Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators are the others.

He was also ranked number one by Sports Illustrated for 2016-17:

The defending Norris Trophy winner is both an advanced stats monster and an ace at the eye test. He might not boast the offensive chops of some top defenders, but his reads, mobility and hockey sense make him the undisputed master of his own zone.

But there are some detractors. Stanley Cup of Chowder had the audacity to lump Jake Muzzin and Doughty together as the 12th and 11th best defensemen for 2016-17 (their top three were Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and Erik Karlsson, on the basis that they produce more and make fewer mistakes than Doughty):

Drew Doughty's main knock at five on five is shot quality against. He lets up some really, really bad chances. Like, worse than a lot of guys who get characterized as offensive defensemen. Of course, he makes up for this by never really having to play in his own zone. But still, defending well is kind of important if you're a defenseman...

Special teams play is where Doughty really pulls ahead. This isn't to say that Muzzin isn't also great on special teams, but Doughty is decisively far ahead in many ways. People don't really ever talk about it but his PP P/60 was freakin' elite last year, well about 5. More than anyone below him on this list aside from Burns. He also plays a crapton of PK minutes, more than Muzzin, but not by much.

At the end of the day, I have to give it to Doughty. But neither of these guys are breaking the top 10.

And Bleacher Report ranked him eighth for 2016-17:

[Doughty] does have some flaws, though, and occasional mental letdowns have shown he's not always the most cautious or well-positioned in his own end. He also doesn't get credited with many turnovers—managing just 10 last season while tacked with nearly 100 giveaways. That's the biggest disparity among any of the players on this list. However, you could look at that combined with his possession metrics and decide he doesn't create takeaways because his team always has the puck when he's on the ice.

Even for his detractors though, it is remiss not to include high praise. With such glowing reviews, you would think that the Kings should not hesitate to re-sign the Norris Trophy winner in 2019 when his contract expires, even if it costs $10 million per year. But not so fast. Let’s do our due diligence.

It’s fully foreseeable that Doughty will demand $10 million per year as the title of this article suggests. Vlasic just signed the exact same contract Doughty is currently locked into: 8 years, $56 million. Currently the highest paid defenseman is P. K. Subban, also a Norris Trophy winner, at $9 million per year. Goaltender Carey Price just signed an extension of $84 million over eight years ($10.5 million annually). And Connor McDavid, after only two NHL seasons, has scored a contract extension of $108 million over eight years. That’s $13.5 million of annual tithes to McJesus, who has redeemed the Edmonton Oilers organ-eye-sation. And Doughty has admitted it himself—in an interview with Sportsnet, he has not ruled out testing the waters of free agency.

It behooves us to compare Doughty to the defensemen who earn more than him. Let’s also add Karlsson, Ekman-Larsson, and two-time Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith. (The stats of Subban, Kris Letang, and Aaron Ekblad have been normalized to reflect an 82-game season. I have not normalized for time on ice, as all of these men play around 25 minutes a game.)

Top NHL defensemen, 2016-17

Player Team 2017-18 cap hit (millions) GP G A Pts Plus-minus Corsi For % PIM Avg ice time Hits All-Star selections Norris trophies
Player Team 2017-18 cap hit (millions) GP G A Pts Plus-minus Corsi For % PIM Avg ice time Hits All-Star selections Norris trophies
P.K. Subban (normalized) NSH $9.000 82 12.4 37.3 49.7 -9.9 54.4 54.7 24:24 96.9 2 1
Brent Burns SJ $8.000 82 29 47 76 19 54.2 40 24:52 69 1 0
Victor Hedman TB $7.875 79 16 56 72 3 53.4 47 24:30 93 0 0
Shea Weber MTL $7.857 78 17 25 42 20 51.3 38 25:04 140 4 0
Dustin Byfuglien WPG $7.600 80 13 39 52 10 51.4 117 27:27 183 0 0
Ryan Suter MIN $7.538 82 9 31 40 34 50.2 36 26:55 72 1 0
Aaron Ekblad (normalized) FLA $7.500 82 12.1 13.3 25.3 -27.7 52.1 58 21:28 106.1 0 0
Kris Letang (normalized) PIT $7.250 82 10 58 68 20 52.9 64 25:31 140 2 0
Drew Doughty LA $7.000 82 12 32 44 8 55.2 46 27:09 129 3 1
Erik Karlsson OTT $6.500 77 17 54 71 10 50.1 28 26:50 67 3 2
Duncan Keith CHI $5.538 80 6 47 53 22 50.7 16 25:37 24 2 2
Oliver Ekman-Larsson ARI $5.500 79 12 27 39 -25 45.4 48 24:37 112 0 0
Source: www.hockey-reference.com

What can we learn from this table? In general, the highest-paid defensemen produce the most offensively. Though Doughty leads the pack in Corsi For %, those paid more than him produce more goals and assists. Check out Brent Burns—his 29 goals outscore the entire Kings team except Jeff Carter. And check out Karlsson—his 54 assists are the reason many consider him superior to Doughty. Victor Hedman and Letang have 56 and 58 assists, respectively. It makes perfect sense—goals entertain fans and sell tickets. Though we can argue that defense cannot be measured with offensive stats alone, the best defense still remains a good offense, and therefore it makes sense that the top NHL defensemen lead other defensemen in offensive production.

One concern about Doughty is his high mileage. The Kings won two Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014, and reached the third round in 2013. With the departure of expert puckmover Slava Voynov in 2014, Doughty became the Kings’ only reliable puck moving defenseman. The Kings then started overusing Doughty in 2014-15 and 2015-16, playing him an average of 28-29 minutes a game. He is down to 27 minutes a game in 2016-17, but it is imperative that other Kings defensemen shoulder more of the load to prevent injury.

So should the Kings pay Doughty $10 million? Unfortunately, it will be uncomfortable to do so. The Kings are already saddled with too many bad contracts—Marian Gaborik until 2020-21, Dustin Brown until 2021-22, and Anze Kopitar until 2023-24 with a no-movement clause. In addition, it is hard to imagine that Carter and Jonathan Quick will continue to bring their A-games each day until 2021-22 and 2022-23, respectively. Efforts to get the Vegas Golden Knights to take on Gaborik or Brown failed, and it is doubtful that any team will ever be interested in such long contracts.

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, generated by the creativity of Nic Dowd. Andy Andreoff will be the tough guy as Kyle Clifford declines due to concussions, and Jordan Nolan is not brought back after 2017-18. The defense will be anchored by Derek Forbort and Paul LaDue, with a second pair of Kevin Gravel and KHL All-Star Oscar Fantenberg. By then, either Muzzin or Alec Martinez will be traded, and Darcy Kuemper will be starting goaltender as Quick continues to be plagued with injuries.

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?