I was looking forward to working Thursday night's game between the Stars and the Kings for one reason -- and no, it wasn't to see how the stunningly out-of-sorts Marty Turco would shoot himself in the foot this time. Thursday was my first chance to catch the early leader for the Calder Trophy: Los Angeles defender Drew Doughty, in person. And brother, the 18-year-old did not disappoint.
In fact, outside of a pair of third-period defensive zone turnovers -- the kind that are inevitable when you handle the puck as much as he does -- Doughty performed like the most experienced player on the ice. Even without putting a point on the board, his impact in all three zones was undeniable.
Those Ray Bourque comparisons? Pretty easy to see where they're coming from. Doughty is not as physically punishing as the former Boston great, at least not yet, but the similarities are obvious. The poise with the puck. The flawless positioning. The willingness to drive to the net coupled with the ability to get back first to make the defensive zone play. No wonder coach Terry Murray rewarded him with a career high 27:06 of ice time against the Stars. When someone's playing like that, no matter how old they are, you've got to ride them hard.
But as impressive as Doughty was, another Kings rookie managed to snatch a bit of the spotlight for himself. 19-year-old center Oscar Moller.
Moller can't match Doughty the defenseman on the national buzz index, but he's quietly established himself as key component of the Kings' rebuilding effort. Watching him, it's hard not to think of another Bruin: Patrice Bergeron. Partially it's a similarity in style. Both are creative, fast and feisty. But the more obvious link is that, like Bergeron, Moller's rapid adaptation to the NHL makes it hard to believe that 30 teams passed on him -- some twice -- in the 2007 draft. Like Bergeron, Moller is small by today's standards (listed at 5-11, 180), and even in a league more tolerant of the size-challenged, that shortcoming was enough to drop him to 52nd overall.
Moller went to camp, but wasn't physically ready to make the immediate jump last fall. That wasn't an issue this time around. Stronger and more confident, he's earned a spot on the second line with Alexander Frolov and Jarret Stoll. The group was the team's best against the Stars, consistently buzzing the Dallas end and accounting for the Kings' second and third goals, with Moller earning the primary assist on Kyle Quincey's game-winner.
The trio seems to be meshing well, but given Murray's propensity for mixing up his lines, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Moller lining up on L.A.'s top unit alongside Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown.
"You don't want to rush things, put a player in a position where he's less likely to succeed. [But] I don't think that would be a problem [for Moller]," one scout told SI.com. "He struggled through the first few games and you wondered if he'd get his game on track, but now he's just playing. You can tell he feels like he belongs."
"He plays with a lot of energy. He always finds a way to catch your eye when he's on the ice," another scout said. "The puck's always around him, and when he has it, he makes good decisions. He looks stronger, too. He looks ready to compete."
Anyone can scoop up a player when they're drafting in the top five. For a rebuilding team to expedite the process, they have to mine a few gems outside the first round. Moller may need some more polishing, but the Kings look to have a pair of jewels in him and Doughty.
A pair? Make that three Kings, with Colton Teubert emerging as one of the top prospects in junior hockey. The 6-3, 190-pound defender, selected 13th overall by the Kings last summer, is off to a fast start with the Regina Pats of the WHL. In just 18 games, Teubert has eight goals and 18 points -- three off last season's total -- with 54 penalty minutes and a plus-15 rating. "He's a poor man's Chris Pronger," a scout told SI.com. "He might not reach the same level of success, but he's got a similar skill set. He's a solid, physical player, a [high-end] skater, and he knows what to do with the puck. He's been a dominant force [in the WHL]."
After years of suffering with Mike Weaver,Nathan Dempsey and Kevin Dallman, you can forgive Kings fans for swooning while they imagine the potential of a blueline with Doughty, Teubert, Jack Johnson (third overall, 2005) and Thomas Hickey (fourth overall, 2006). The group should be on the ice together next season.
The Flames' burning question
What's more frightening for fans of the Flames: the fact that Miikka Kiprusoff is statistically the NHL's second-worst starter (his .885 save percentage and 3.49 GAA are better only than Turco's) or that they're married to him for the next five years at $7 million a pop?
After watching Kiprusoff blistered for 17 goals in his last four starts, it's easy to blame his struggles on the team's defensive woes. He definitely is facing higher quality shots than he did just two years ago, but that's only part of the problem. Much like Turco, Kipper's problems appear to be mental. The confidence and concentration that used to define his excellence aren't at the same levels. He leads the league in juicy rebounds, is giving up more softies, and seems to have a harder time shaking them off.
So what's a more frightening option for coach Mike Keenan? Allowing Kiprusoff to work through his issues or falling back on Curtis McElhinney? The benchwarmer has yet to post a win in seven NHL appearances, so he's not much of an option.
After losing a pair of 6-1 games in a week, and with the team playing so dispassionately that it coughed up 50 shots to the Sharks, Keenan has to realize that he and his staff might not have long to turn things around. In that case, he has to ride the big dog. A couple more games like that San Jose debacle and Calgary's goaltending woes won't be Keenan's problem any longer.
The Thrashers could tie a franchise record with five consecutive wins if they can take care of the Hurricanes on Friday night. While the points are nice, the bigger picture is that Atlanta is playing with a level of confidence not seen in more than a year. In each of their last three wins, the Thrashers came from behind at least twice. In a 5-4 win over Buffalo last Friday, they erased three one-goal deficits before wrapping it up in overtime.
Not to oversimplify, but the biggest difference is the way new coach John Anderson has his team competing for 60 minutes. Combine that with their growing comfort level with his system, and the Thrashers are playing their best hockey since winning the Southeast title in 2006.
Keeping it real
Commenting on Mike Ribeiro's jaw-dropping shootout goal against the Kings on Tuesday night, Stars captain Brenden Morrow pulled back the curtain a bit to explain why you don't see more players attempting the spectacular. "There's another move he's been trying where he flips the puck [up] and then bats it out of the air," Morrow told a Dallas radio station. "But I told him if he ever tries that in a game and misses, I'm gonna slap him around."
Substance wins out over style again.