Los Angeles Kings coach Darryl Sutter has a theory about how to handle Drew Doughty, which makes about as much sense as any to explain the general upswing in his recent play: Just get out of the way.
Everybody who watched Canada win the gold medal in men's hockey at the 2010 Winter Olympics will remember Doughty's contribution. Sidney Crosby may have scored the golden goal, and Jarome Iginla set it up, but arguably no one made a greater tournament-long contribution to Canada's victory than Doughty and his defence partner Duncan Keith. As the pace of the games cranked up, and the pressure mounted, the two were a dynamic force at both ends of the ice, able to keep up when players of comparable stature found the going a little too fast.
What made it all the more remarkable: Doughty had just turned 21 two months before the gold-medal triumph, and his inclusion on the team, by general manager Steve Yzerman, had previously raised a few eyebrows. Doughty finished the 2009-10 NHL season with a flourish: Norris Trophy finalist; a 59-point season; and it looked as though it was just a matter of time before he started down the Nicklas Lidstrom path and won multiple Norrises.
Instead, for most of a year and a half, Doughty was just okay – solid defensively, contributing occasionally on offence, but in the maddening sort of way that young defencemen do, he seemed to plateau at the moment when his upside seemed sky high.
It was only when Sutter took over from coach Terry Murray in December that Doughty's game perked up.
"Honestly, I don't think it has anything to do with me," Sutter said. "He's just one of those kids who missed all of training camp at the start of the year and he's just starting to get going. You've still got to get your reps in and he wasn't getting them at game speed.
"I think this kid's like that – because he's just such a natural guy, it's crazy. His talent is just off the charts.
"Everybody sees him as such a high offensive guy, which is what he'll be, but [against Washington earlier this season]he played every shift against [Alex]Ovechkin and he gave up 40 pounds and Ovechkin rolled him a couple of times, but by the end of the game, he'd taken the game away from Ovechkin and he was the game. He's a special player. His skating and puck skills, that's the most fun part for me. When you get back into coaching, it reminds you or reinforces to you how good some of these guys are. The biggest problem I've got is staying out of the way in practice.
"Their creativity, and their minds, and the way they see it is way better than ours."
So much of the Kings' close-to-the-vest defensive identity is tied up in three players – Jonathan Quick in goal, Doughty and Jack Johnson on defence. For the Kings to go anywhere in the playoffs this year, they need them to be significant contributors because up front, they just don't score enough goals to play run and gun.
For his part, Doughty believes there's only one difference in his play since the coaching change.
"I'm getting points," he said. "I don't think I'm playing much different. I feel the same way out there, and am doing the same things offensively and the same things defensively. [Sutter]expects us all to play the same way – and work hard, no matter who you are. Obviously, the points have been coming and that's generally how the media sees things – if you get points, you're playing good, if you're not getting points, you're not playing good. It's good to see them coming, but the most important thing is we're winning. That's all that matters."
Doughty had 15 points in 19 games before the Kings set out on their annual Grammy road trip and even if Doughty believes statistics are overstated, it is hard to imagine the Kings are paying him $56-million over eight years – the contract he signed after missing all of training camp – just to be a steady stay-at-home defenceman.
Under Sutter, there is a greater sense of urgency, according to Doughty, who said that stylistically, the Kings aren't much different: "He just expects us to be the hardest workers out there. He wants us to be a tough team to play against every night. He wants us to finish every check. He wants us to get pucks in deep, to be quicker on pucks in every single zone on the ice. That's the biggest difference.
"From an X's and O's perspective, he hasn't changed much at all. We're pretty much playing the exact same way. Terry and Justin Williams. A year older, and with one important piece added in the off-season (Mike Richards), Doughty imagines the Kings are at the point where they can take the next step.
"I think so," he said. "We've made some key additions to the team since the trade deadline last year and I think those guys are starting to come together with the team. Everybody's got their linemates that they've been playing with now. It's about developing that chemistry and we're finally doing that. All this team has to do is get better and better every night."