With a sublime spin move, L.A.'s precocious Drew Doughty is the finest member of a new wave of gifted young defensemen—and may be on his way to being one of the best ever
Taped to a file cabinet in his office at the Kings' practice facility near LAX, Los Angeles general manager Dean Lombardi has a slip of paper that contains a single handwritten word: WINNER.
Of course, there is a story behind this artifact, which is almost two years old but might as well be 2,000 given its totemic significance to a franchise that has been destiny's doormat since it entered the NHL in 1967. It is the word Lombardi had wanted Drew Doughty to utter at the May 2008 scouting combine. Doughty had done everything else. He had lost some 30 pounds of nachos-and-Coke suet that he had toted around his last season of junior hockey (two-and-a-half months earlier, the 6'1" Doughty had stepped on a dressing-room scale and proclaimed, "Holy damn," or words to that effect, "I'm 235"), and he had sparkled nearly as much in predraft interviews as he had on the ice. But in a mere three weeks Lombardi was going to make the second pick in the NHL draft, a potential franchise-altering selection, and he needed to hear the gifted 18-year-old defenseman from London, Ont., say the magic word. During a previous talk Lombardi had prepped Doughty on the three stages of a great NHL career—player, star, winner—but now in a hotel conference room packed with Los Angeles management, Doughty was drawing a blank.
Lombardi asked, "In building a new culture, what among all your talent and ability is most important? That you are a ...?"
March 28, 2010
Lombardi prompted, "Now what was Wayne Gretzky?"
Doughty riffled through a few more nouns before blurting, "Winner."
Lombardi was ecstatic. This was definitely his boy. He didn't discover until later that Jack Ferreira, the Kings' special assistant who had been sitting behind him, had written winner on that slip of paper and held it over Lombardi's shoulder in Doughty's line of sight.
"Jack gave me that piece of paper," Lombardi says. "Told me that someday it might be worth something."
If the most precocious NHL defenseman of the past 15 years continues to turn heads, that paper might wind up in the Hall of Fame.
On an 87° afternoon, Doughty is demonstrating his spin-o-rama in a handicapped parking space outside the Marmalade Cafe in El Segundo. Actually the moon-faced 20-year-old does not have one spin-o-rama but five or six depending on side of the ice, zone, whether the puck is coming up the boards from the corner or across the ice from his partner or on a number of other permutations, but for pedagogical purposes Doughty is displaying his move from the left point when an opposing forward is trying to angle him to the wall. He wears a Pittsburgh Pirates cap, a green T-shirt in honor of St. Patrick's Day, patterned shorts, unlaced tan-and-plaid boat shoes and carries an imaginary hockey stick. When the virtual puck comes back from the corner, he pantomimes taking it on his backhand—he is a right-handed shot—and pulling it to his forehand. He sweeps his arms back to approximate a faked slapper, which freezes the invisible forward, who plants himself in the shooting lane of the simulated shot. Doughty then shifts his weight forward and pirouettes clockwise, switching the puck to his backhand while protecting it with his impressive hockey haunches. Now that he has rotated past his theoretical man, he has the option of cutting to the middle, moving the puck to his forehand and unleashing a 35-foot wrist shot or going hard to the net, which in this case is a Buick.
"I have no problem with people calling it my signature move," Doughty says over a half-portion of seafood risotto and a diet soda after the demo. "Maybe guys will read it now. But even if they do, the worst thing that can happen is I just backhand [the puck] into the zone."
The spin is not really Doughty's signature, at least not his uniquely. Whenever he corkscrews in the offensive zone, maybe once every two games, he is tracing the signatures of defensemen who have written their names in the history of the sport, such as Serge Savard, with his lumbering Savardian spin-o-rama and, yes, the nonpareil Bobby Orr. Doughty is not reinventing the literal wheel—injured Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell often uses the move as an escape mechanism in the defensive zone—but he does it more audaciously than any player in decades.
Because Doughty has such a keen grasp of nuance in hockey's most complex position—he knows, for example, how to use the net as a screen to buy space in the defensive zone—Kings coach Terry Murray hardly blinks at those DD 360s. And when the youngest player to represent his hockey-rich country at a best-on-best tournament in almost 20 years (since 18-year-old Eric Lindros at the 1991 Canada Cup) pulled his full howdy-do at the recent Olympics, Lindy Ruff, in charge of Team Canada's defense, shrugged. As the Sabres coach is fond of saying, "You can't teach that." Even as a second-year ingénue, Doughty had earned the right to color outside the lines.
Doughty began the Olympics as Canada's seventh defenseman. By the second period of the opener against Norway, he already had his first battlefield promotion. He would wind up playing major minutes, usually with 26-year-old Duncan Keith on a dynamic Canadian pair. So impervious was Doughty to his momentous surroundings that during a second-period TV timeout in the gold-medal-clinching win over Team USA, a camera caught him on the bench bopping to a song that was blaring in the arena.
"On his off side, late in the [round-robin match against the U.S.], he fakes the one-timer, curls and goes around the forward," says veteran Sean O'Donnell, Doughty's partner on the Kings last season. "I don't know who the forward was"—Doughty says it was Ryan Callahan—"but you're not doing that against some fourth-line [NHL] guy. For a 20-year-old to be able to pull that move in the last minute of an Olympic game with his team down a goal ... amazing."
"Of the defensemen I played with, the only two who looked like they'd been around forever at that age were Ray Bourque in Boston and Nick Lidstrom in Detroit," says Red Wings assistant coach Brad McCrimmon, a blueliner for 18 NHL seasons. "Doughty's the third."
Savard, Orr, Bourque, Lidstrom ... the comparisons seem ludicrous for a still fleshy kid three weeks away from his first NHL playoff game with the emerging Kings (41-24-5 through Sunday, sixth in the Western Conference), a team that last reached the postseason in 2002. Yet like Doughty's spin-o-rama, sometimes there are no better options. You just sort of go with it, you know?
Only two defensemen have won the Norris Trophy before age 24: Orr and Denis Potvin. While Doughty is in the vanguard of the Young Defensemen Revolution sweeping the NHL (sidebar), he probably won't win this year. But he could. The Blackhawks' Keith, with more points and playing for the better team, is the presumptive Norris favorite, but Doughty is a hockey savant, "uncomplicated off the ice, Picasso on it," as Kings codirector of amateur scouting Michael Futa notes. Says O'Donnell, "He just gets it."
Doughty minds his P's and Q's as Murray diagrams X's and O's at practice, forcing himself to focus. But Doughty's game is transcribed from a singular vision, not from chalk talk. Like many youngsters, he does better with the show than the tell part. He learns by absorbing on-ice situations, then incorporating them into his already sophisticated sense of the game. He can be rattled, as he was in the last minute of the Olympic semifinal against Slovakia, when Canada's defensive-zone coverage looked like the last chopper out of Saigon. (These are the moments, Team Canada coach Mike Babcock said, which help young players "grow whiskers.") In the final against the U.S., Kings captain Dustin Brown beat Doughty twice, once with a sharp cut to the inside and once with speed wide. "He told me he thinks too much when I'm coming down on him," says Brown, his road roommate. "He knows my move where I put it through my legs and cut to the middle. When you know somebody so well, you're almost trying to guess what they'll do instead of playing them. He starts overthinking and stops playing. He should just play. He's a player."
"He'll be like [48-year-old Atlanta defenseman Chris] Chelios," Lombardi says. "Drew'll be 70 and playing in beer leagues because he loves the game."
The fair-haired boy will grow into a man when he puts away childish things. (Veteran Kings forward Ryan Smyth's rule for Doughty, sometimes obeyed: No soda, not even diet, on the plane ride after a loss.) His thick body will acquire definition. But unlike most grown-ups, Doughty should not compromise his airy freedom. He should retain the insouciance that eventually could make a word affixed to a G.M.'s file cabinet more prophecy than motto.
With a defenseman that remarkable, the Kings—journeying aimlessly throughout the NHL for 42 years—finally should stop spinning their wheels. Even if Doughty will not.
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Doughty is a hockey savant, "uncomplicated off the ice, Picasso on it," says one member of the Kings.