EL SEGUNDO, Calif. - Drew Doughty began this season holding out for a $56 million contract from the Los Angeles Kings, demanding and getting an enormous sum for a kid with more potential than accomplishment.
Doughty then started the season with every dollar seemingly stacked on his shoulders, weighing him down.
The 22-year-old has shaken off that burden in the post-season, leading his favourite team since his Ontario boyhood into just its second trip to the Stanley Cup final. The Canadian Olympic gold medallist just keeps getting better, producing a two-point performance in the Western Conference finals clincher at Phoenix on Tuesday.
Although Doughty is also skilled at deflecting praise, he's thrilled to be the player everybody has always thought he could become.
"I think I'm back to that guy that I know I can be," Doughty said. "I'm loving everything about it, and I want to continue to be that guy. I think in order for us to win the Stanley Cup, I have to be that best defenceman on the ice every night, and I'm going to make sure I'm doing that."
Doughty has been the best defenceman on the NHL's best playoff team so far, scoring 10 points in 14 games—the Kings' other five defencemen have a combined 11 points—and averaging nearly 26 minutes of ice time. He's doing it all while playing against every opponent's top offensive players with his partner, veteran Rob Scuderi.
"You have to be well-rounded in all areas and not just a specialist," said Kings coach Darryl Sutter, a major factor in Doughty's leap forward. "You have to be able to see yourself in all those situations, and when he does that, he's pretty good."
Doughty's surge after two straight regular seasons of declining production has spurred the rest of the Kings, who try to keep Doughty's passion trained on opponents instead of officials or after-the-whistle scuffles. His rising maturity has impressed the veteran teammates who have watched Doughty change from a raw talent into a balanced, mature defenceman.
"I think he's had to do what most young players don't, and that's grow under the spotlight," said Kings captain Dustin Brown, Doughty's road roommate and self-appointed chaperone. "Most guys spend a few years in the minors and come up, and he's been in the spotlight ever since he's been here. He has handled it pretty well. Part of that's just the type of person he is, and part of it's just the type of guys we have in that room, collectively pushing him in the right direction.
"He's definitely one of those guys (who) acts like he's not going to listen to you, but he does. That goes a long way."
Doughty was the second overall pick in 2008, and the Kings immediately signed the 18-year-old. He made the NHL's all-rookie team in 2009 before becoming the second-youngest Norris Trophy finalist in NHL history a year later, scoring 59 points.
Doughty managed just 40 points last season, but still took a hard line in contract negotiation last summer, demanding to become one of the NHL's highest-paid defencemen. That position didn't sit well with some Kings fans, particularly when he skipped 13 days of training camp.
They made a deal, but Doughty scored just 36 points this season. He also had a minus-2 rating after being a combined plus-33 over the previous two seasons.
But Doughty has been tremendous in the post-season, with his stellar statistics not reflecting the constant trouble he creates on an opponent's blue line with his combination of mobility and shot strength.
Doughty created half of the Kings' offence in Game 5 against Phoenix. Midway through the first period, he took a long shot from the point after Anze Kopitar won a faceoff, and Kopitar tipped it for a tying short-handed goal.
Doughty then scored midway through the second period, firing a seeing-eye shot through traffic. He was relentless into overtime, even when he got close to trouble while protesting a pair of late calls that only showcased the competitive fire burning in him—a fire that has been directed properly ever since Sutter took over near midseason.
"I was kind of losing my mind on both of those calls, but you just want to win so bad," Doughty said. "Sometimes you just can't control yourself."
One of Doughty's greatest talents is a gift for controlling the puck off the boards and creating good angles for long shots. Shin-guard-wearing forwards can make it all but impossible to get a clean shot from the point, particularly in the playoffs, but Doughty's nimble feet and outstanding instincts make it deceptively simple.
Sutter and St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock also highlighted another skill Doughty possesses in abundance: The ability to control the puck in his own end while fighting off forecheckers. Doughty has rarely lost the puck while preparing to clear it out of his zone, and he leads a corps of Los Angeles defencemen with strong breakout ability, a hallmark of the Kings' 12-2 run through the playoffs.
Sutter doesn't take credit for Doughty's leap forward, instead pointing the praise at the player. But even Doughty agrees Sutter's coaching style has been a tremendous influence on him.
"He's hard on you," Doughty said. "He's huge on preparation. He's making sure we're all ready for the game, whether it's the day before or the moment we step on the ice. He's so hard on you, it's almost scary if he catches you off-guard. That's a huge part of our success right now."
Brown isn't the only veteran looking out for Doughty, who looks up to both Scuderi and Willie Mitchell, the 35-year-old veteran who will get to play in his first Stanley Cup final. When Doughty was asked immediately after Game 5 about his emotions, he immediately cited Mitchell's long-delayed chance to play for a championship.
But Doughty is enjoying the moment while keeping it in perspective. He spent an off day this month courtside at a Lakers playoff game with Mike Richards, and he took some friends to see his beloved Toronto Blue Jays in Anaheim as well. The Jays presented him with a personalized jersey—and the 22-year-old in him was thrilled to be recognized on the Angel Stadium scoreboard.
"I know everyone is behind us right now," Doughty said. "When I first came to this city, no one is recognizing you on the street. No one is even talking about Kings hockey. Now when you go out for lunch or dinner, everyone is talking about it. It's huge."