PICASSO OF THE BLUE LINE

In a showdown for purists only, Drew Doughty led L.A. to the title and emerged as the game's best defenseman. But next season he may not get to play
June 25, 2012

On a glorious day fit for the Kings, the Stanley Cup parade crept through downtown Los Angeles last Thursday, black and silver confetti dusting the double-decker buses and flatbed trucks carrying players and their families to a rally at Staples Center. After a playoff spring in which disbelief was suspended more often than Lindsay Lohan's driver's license, hockey had settled into the familiar triumphal postscript: a trip to Las Vegas, ceremonial first pitches, and feel-good visits with Jay Leno and Jimmy Kimmel.

One TV show with no interest in the Kings or their hardware was HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher. The host told his Twitter followers not to congratulate him about the first championship in franchise history simply because he lives in L.A.: "No one here gives a s--- about a winter sport played by Russians/Canadians in June."

While Maher betrayed a tenuous grasp of the roster—captain Dustin Brown and goalie Jonathan Quick are Americans, while only one Russian, defenseman Slava Voynov, got ice time after the first round—his contrariness was not groundless. NBC4 displayed a Sacramento Kings logo during a report on the Western Conference finals, which would be like confusing defenseman Drew Doughty's hometown of London, Ont., with, you know, that city where players skate on the left side of the road or something. A Fox11 sports anchor referred to No. 1 center Anze Kopitar as Kopidor, while Doughty—merely the playoffs' pivotal figure—became Brad Doty. During the series Fox11 also turned Jonathan Quick into Jonathan Swift. In case this comes up again, Swift wrote A Modest Proposal, an 18th-century satire suggesting that impoverished Irish sell their children as food to rich gentlemen, while Quick merely ate the lunch of the New Jersey Devils.

The thousands who lined the parade route along Figueroa Street seemed like an impressive turnout until compared with the last two title turnouts, two million in Chicago in 2010 and the one million in Boston last year. L.A.'s celebration was actually restrained from the moment the Kings clinched the title on June 11 with a 6--1 home win in Game 6. Only six revelers were arrested that night. Six. If the LAPD had raided lockers at any elementary school that day, it probably could have had more collars. The television metrics were also understated. The per-game average of 3 million U.S. viewers made this the lowest-rated finals since 2007, which is unsurprising, considering the Kings' opponent. (The Devils are the NHL's version of the witness protection program, their players' ho-hum excellence routinely overlooked because they play in the shadow of New York and the Rangers.)

This was a matchup for those who like their hockey neat, no chaser, with much to savor beyond the notion of a No. 8 seed spreading hope to the middle class of professional sports everywhere, scintillating saves and tape-at-11 goals (albeit with the names mangled). The series revealed itself in delightful ways with displays of character not easily conveyed in 140 characters. The zipper of 35 stitches on the nose of defenseman Rob Scuderi stood as bumpy testament to the price of victory as he held his 4-year-old daughter, Kate, on the ice after Game 6. "Did you win?" she asked. Twice. "Yes," her father said, also twice. "We won."

If you missed the finals, you turned your back on one of the most accomplished goaltenders in history, New Jersey's 40-year-old Martin Brodeur. More tellingly, you missed the reemergence of hockey's future in Doughty, the man-child who plays with uncommon skill and infectious joy. Discussing a coast-to-coast Doughty goal in Game 2 that was as luscious as any Bobby Orr concoction, L.A. assistant general manager Ron Hextall says, "If you look at the subtle things he does with his hands and feet to create the room for that move, most people don't understand it." Hextall pauses. "Drew probably doesn't understand it either."

Quick, who finished with a .946 save percentage in the playoffs and a .947 mark in the finals, was a deserving playoff MVP. The 22-year-old Doughty would have been an even more deserving one.

In a finals series that pitted near doppelg√§ngers—superb goaltending, astute coaching, heavy forechecking—the difference was Doughty, whom no one on the Devils remotely resembled. He helped neuter New Jersey's top line (Zach Parise had one goal and Ilya Kovalchuk an empty-netter) by negating its forecheck, almost inviting a hit and then making a late dish or swivel-hipping his way around it. As Devils defenseman Mark Fayne observed after Game 4, "Doughty's got patience. He sells plays without doing anything. A quick look off maybe, and he makes a play. Most guys you move at will make a play to get rid of the puck. He just stands there." Doughty had six points in the finals. He had a point in 12 playoff games and played 25 minutes or more in 15 of the Kings' 20. He also had 14 points in the last 13 matches, growing more formidable as the playoffs advanced. He would have been the thinking man's Conn Smythe winner, though the terms thinking and Doughty rarely cross paths. In the words of L.A.'s codirector of amateur scouting, Mike Futa, Doughty is "uncomplicated off the ice, Picasso on it."

"Before the Olympics [Team Canada associate director], Kevin Lowe asked me if that's the best Drew can play," says Mark Hardy, an assistant coach with the Ontario (Calif.) Reign of the ECHL, who was then coaching the Kings' defense. "Drew wasn't playing particularly well at the time, but I told Kevin that when the stage is the highest, Drew Doughty is at his best. And he turned out to be their best defenseman [in Vancouver 2010]. Drew doesn't have any fear because he doesn't overthink the game. He just plays it."

"Dewey has so much talent that he can just go out and play," says grinning L.A. winger Trevor Lewis, one of Doughty's closest friends on the team. "He's better when he doesn't think. So it's probably a good thing that he's not the sharpest tool in the shed."

In honor of Doughty's nickname, the Kings collect what Brown has labeled Dewey-isms, statements or questions that strike them as so preposterous they wonder if Doughty is being serious or enjoying his own cosmic joke. Example: He asked Quick what island lay below as the charter banked over Catalina minutes after takeoff. "Hawaii," the goalie replied. Doughty seemed to buy it. Momentarily.

"There was this time we're watching Animal Planet, and he decides he wants to own a lion," says Brown, his road roommate. "I kinda convinced him that it wasn't a good idea. But he was impressed that the lion sleeps 20 or 22 hours a day. He said, 'Imagine if we slept 20 hours a day and woke up and didn't get a good night's sleep and wanted to go back to bed.' That's a Dewey-ism."

Los Angeles missed Doughty last fall as surely as he missed the on-ice timing and conditioning only training camps can provide. He was involved in an adversarial contract negotiation, one that left scars that even $56 million over eight years might not fully heal. Doughty, who has a thick torso and great hockey haunches, was stumbling under the weight of money rather than the extra 10 pounds or so he has been carrying since juniors, feeling pressure to justify a deal that made him one of the league's highest-paid defensemen. He missed five games with a shoulder injury at the start of the season, and was -5 with just eight points through his first 25 games.

But by early 2012, after the respected but monochromatic Terry Murray was replaced behind the bench with Darryl Sutter, whose conspicuous passion was more in tune with Doughty's instinctive approach, the defenseman began to resemble his precocious Olympic self. Hip checks were delivered. Spin-o-ramas were spun. Swashes were buckled. He found a hint of his smile, even if it was not as astonished as the one he would flash on the ice when he skated with the Stanley Cup.

Within 28 months Doughty has won a gold medal and a Stanley Cup. Among the best postexpansion defensemen—a list that comprises Orr, Denis Potvin, Larry Robinson, Raymond Bourque, Paul Coffey, Chris Chelios, Al MacInnis, Scott Stevens, Brian Leetch, Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer, Zdeno Chara and Nicklas Lidstrom—only Orr (22 and two months, four NHL seasons) and Niedermayer (21 and 10 months, three NHL seasons) were critical pieces of a Cup-winning blue line at a younger age.

"I once said to Drew, 'I hear you don't like to practice much,'" Hextall says. "He said, 'That's right. I wish I could play a game every day.' He's like a 14-year-old kid. He's a hockey player. He just wants to play."

Two hours before Kopitar and the Devils' Travis Zajac took the opening draw of Game 1, a ceremonial face-off occurred in a hallway of the Prudential Center in Newark. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and players' association executive director Donald Fehr shook hands, then chatted about the benefits of coffee, the skating exploits of Bettman's five-year-old grandson and the unpredictability of the finals. Fehr said he had no idea what might happen. "That," Bettman responded, "is the fun part."

Now comes the part that is no fun at all. During the next three months, until the collective bargaining agreement expires on Sept. 15, Bettman, Fehr and their respective negotiating committees will engage not in small talk but in big talk.

There have been two recent lockouts in North American leagues: the NFL, whose 136-day labor dispute last year turned out to be like teachers striking in July, and the NBA, which cost each team 16 games in 2011--12. When the NHL last locked out its players, the '04--05 season was lost. From that rubble emerged NHL 2.0, which included rule changes designed to increase scoring and a salary-cap system. The efficacy of both is dubious. Seven years after the rules were tweaked, the 5.3 goals-per-game average has slid back to just above '03--04 levels (5.1). In the interim league revenues have jumped from $2 billion to $3.3 billion; the '12--13 salary cap will be roughly $70.3 million. (The initial postlockout ceiling was $39 million.) But some franchises, including the Devils, have foundered financially. Currently the split of hockey-related revenues, 57% to 43%, favors the players, who, under one of Fehr's predecessors, Bob Goodenow, accepted a 24% salary rollback in the last deal.

"Players understand what happened last time," Fehr said. "Nobody you represent ... starts with the proposition that that's what I'd like to do—I'd like to negotiate a worse deal than what I have."

The kiddie portion of the hockey season ended with a parade. Now the adult phase begins. The short, hot summer will answer the question of when the Kings and Doughty, a dazzling 22-year-old going on 14, get to play again.

"MOST GUYS YOU MOVE AT WILL GET RID OF THE PUCK," SAID FAYNE. DOUGHTY "JUST STANDS THERE."

THE KIDDIE PORTION OF THE HOCKEY SEASON IS OVER. NOW THE ADULT PHASE BEGINS.

PHOTOPhotograph by BRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGESLOAD LIFTER With the teams evenly matched in almost every department, the creativity and productivity of Doughty—14 points in the Kings' last 13 games—proved to be the difference. PHOTOROBERT BECKSIGN OF THE TIMES The Lakers have won 16 NBA titles, but after the Kings clinched their first Cup with a 6--1 win in Game 6 (above), fans got a chance to show their love for new stars such as Kopitar. PHOTODAVID HOOD/CAL SPORT MEDIA[See caption above] PHOTOROBERT BECKA SMILE BEFORE THE STORM Bettman gave the Conn Smythe Trophy to Quick, then returned to New York City to prepare for what will likely be contentious negotiations.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)