The reign of the Kings has resumed, and it may last for many years. They are big, they are fast, they are smart and they are innovative. And they have Drew Doughty
This is an article from the June 23, 2014 issue
LAST THURSDAY, the day before Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals between the Kings and the Rangers, Colleen Doughty celebrated her 50th birthday in an L.A. restaurant with her son Drew. Over lunch, she offered the Kings' blueliner some pointed advice. "You need to make better [shift] changes," she told him. "You [guys] can play better." The next night, with his team trailing 2--1 and a little more than 12 minutes left in the third period, Doughty wristed a shot from the top of the right face-off circle toward New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist made the save, but then Los Angeles winger Marian Gaborik, who was lurking in front of the crease, jammed in the rebound. The goal set the stage for defenseman Alec Martinez's Cup-winner in double overtime, the glorious coda to the longest game, and the longest season, in Kings history. On the ice at Staples Center 30 minutes later, Doughty greeted his mom: "Happy birthday," he said. "[It] wasn't easy this time, but we found a way."
To hoist the Stanley Cup for the second time in three seasons, L.A. had to find a different way to win, and not just by following Mrs. Doughty's advice. This championship looked nothing like the 2012 edition. Two years ago the bruising Kings led every series 3--0 and lost only four games in the postseason. This year they were survivalists, getting by on their wits and their resourcefulness. Los Angeles played seven games in which it could have been eliminated, rallied from two-goal deficits four times—including in the first two games against the Rangers—and became the first team in NHL history to win three Game 7s on the road. The Kings trailed for more minutes (543:15) than they led (534:25). No Cup winner has ever played as many games en route to a championship (26).
The adaptable Kings didn't just find a new way to win this spring; they also—in the NHL's era of free agency, salary caps and parity—developed something invaluable: a philosophy. Call it the Kings' Way.
DURING A meet and greet with season-ticket holders at the team's training center in El Segundo in 2006, Dean Lombardi, the team's new general manager, revealed his vision for the future. On an occasion usually reserved for popcorn and hot dogs, Lombardi challenged his unsuspecting audience by presenting them with an easel covered in hockey hieroglyphics. "There were boxes with diagrams going in a dozen different directions, for coaching, reserve system, minor leagues, revamping the scouting staff," says Bob Miller, L.A.'s longtime television play-by-play announcer. "People are looking around saying, 'What's all this and what does it have to do with our hockey team?' This was really something new [for us]."
Lombardi's wonkishness might have played better had he taken over a team in a hockey hotbed like Toronto or Detroit. But in Los Angeles, where the media has famously struggled to distinguish between the local hockey club and the NBA team in Sacramento, fans were used to getting their information in more digestible, Peter Puck--like tutorials. With business and law degrees from the University of New Haven and Tulane, respectively, the 56-year-old Lombardi, who grew up in Ludlow, Mass., is a sponge for data, and absorbs fresh ways of interpreting and applying it. In 1996, days after he was hired as GM of the Sharks, he called his mentor, Devils GM Lou Lamoriello, asking for advice. Lamoriello told him to build an infrastructure and encourage a culture in which everyone communicated; an integrated system of cooperation instead of a linear, vertical organization in which each person answered to someone above.
Under Lombardi, San Jose improved its points total in six straight seasons before the team's new owners fired him during a poor 2002--03. In '06 he signed on with Los Angeles, which had won just one playoff series in the previous 13 years. Lombardi was stunned at the Kings' outdated infrastructure. Employees were still using typewriters. The team's sparsely appointed weight room reminded him of a prison cafeteria. He dismissed much of the front office staff, including medical, video and equipment personnel. On the ice Lombardi inherited a trio of cornerstones: goalie Jonathan Quick, winger Dustin Brown and center Anze Kopitar. He added some crucial building blocks in '08, trading for veteran center Jarret Stoll and blueliner Matt Greene, and drafting defensemen Doughty and Slava Voynov.
Lombardi preached patience in developing young players, and embraced some advanced metrics. The Kings don't track traditional shots on goal, which are artificially inflated by relatively harmless lobs and heaves from down the ice; they look at scoring chances. How many do they allow? How many do their goalies stop? They also track puck possession, recording which lines have it for how long and in what area of the ice. Also under Lombardi, a European scout is not permitted to tout prospects based solely on his observations; he has to have a plan for how those players will fit into L.A.'s checking scheme or defensive rotation.
In December 2011, with the Kings stumbling along at 13-12-4, Lombardi fired coach Terry Murray and hired Darryl Sutter, who had coached for six years under Lombardi in San Jose. Critics decried Sutter's gruff disposition and his 15 years as an NHL coach (for the Blackhawks, Sharks and Flames) without a Cup. But a dozen players Sutter had coached sent emails to Lombardi saying that while Sutter had been a taskmaster, he had also made them better players. Sutter may have been curt in press conferences, but behind closed doors he was expansive. As for strategy, he preached accountability, especially when foes had the puck. "A lot of teams react to what the opposition does," says Brown. "We want to dictate what happens when we don't have the puck. If we want you on the outside, we're not just going to give up the middle. If you want to carry the puck in, we want to make sure you dump it in."
Lombardi also wanted a bigger team. He inherited a roster with 11 players under six feet tall; the Kings now have only one, 5'11" center Mike Richards. He wanted consistency. Los Angeles is one of only two NHL teams (the Blackhawks are the other) to have had the same captain (Brown) and assistant captains (Kopitar and Greene) in those roles since 2008. The Kings move without the puck better than any team in the league, in part because so many of them have been playing together for so many years (11 have been together since the beginning of 2010--11). Watch the number of passes another team has to make to set up its power play against L.A.'s aggressive penalty kill. "It's how they get on you," says Rangers winger Mats Zuccarello. "It isn't just certain parts of the ice when you have scoring chances; it's everywhere."
Even as they improved, the Kings focused on their nemesis. During the three-week Olympic break in February, with Los Angeles in seventh-place in the West, Sutter and Lombardi plotted a strategy to steal the Cup back from Chicago, which had beaten the Kings in a five-game conference finals series last year. The first part of the plan was to add some scoring punch to a team that ranked 29th in the league (2.25 goals per game). In February, Lombardi called up Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson to infuse L.A.'s corps of forwards with more speed. And just as he did before the Kings won the Cup in 2012, when he added sniper Jeff Carter from the Blue Jackets at the trade deadline, Lombardi picked up the slick-skating Gaborik from Columbus on March 5. "Everyone knew he could produce," Lombardi says, "but we only had five weeks until the playoffs, and we wanted a character guy who would fit into our concept."
The key to unseating the Blackhawks this spring was Sutter's determination to throw Chicago's wide-open game back in its face. In 2012 the Kings had a team built for playoff warfare: deep, especially up the middle, and capable of grinding teams down in low-scoring games. But that style came with limitations. "You can't just sit on a 1--0 lead against a team with as much skill as Chicago," says Richards. The Kings needed to be able to skate with the Blackhawks, especially if they fell behind, and match Chicago stretch-pass-for-stretch-pass, with defensemen other than Doughty joining the rush.
The changes paid off. L.A. rallied from behind in three of its four victories over the Blackhawks and scored 28 goals in the seven-game series. In the Kings' first three victories over the Rangers in the Cup finals, 11 players scored a goal. Winger Justin Williams had a modest 43 points during the regular season, but he set a playoff record for the most Game 7 points (14), led all scorers in the Stanley Cup finals (two goals, five assists) and was named playoff MVP. "Most teams that get this far are going to have two really good lines," says Brown. "Our third and fourth lines tip the scales in our favor." L.A outscored its playoff opponents by 17 goals in the third period and overtime. After struggling to score during the season, they averaged an NHL-best 3.38 goals per game during the playoffs.
DREW DOUGHTY came to the Kings out of London, Ont., with the second pick in the 2008 draft. He plays with unbridled joy and a savant's feel for the game. Early on, things came so easily to him that he sometimes didn't put in enough work. Before he dropped 30 pounds following his last season with the OHL's Guelph Storm in '07--08, he was known as Dough Boy or Doughnut—though there were few holes in his game. An excellent skater at 6'1", 213 pounds, he is big enough to shrug off checkers, and smooth enough to take extra time to survey the options in front of him. "He reminds me of Ray Bourque, the way he controls games at both ends of the ice," says Rob Blake, the former defenseman who spent parts of 14 seasons with Los Angeles and is now the club's assistant GM. "His hockey sense is off the charts. The game is getting so much faster, but everything comes so naturally that it seems to slow down for him. And he never gets tired." This spring, Doughty led defensemen with 18 playoff points and led the league with 747:33 minutes of playoff ice time, the most since the NHL began keeping the stat in 1997--98.
Just 24, Doughty has already mastered some of the finer points of playing on the blue line, including the six-foot pass and the crossover stick check, which stifles forwards while avoiding a penalty. But there is still an inconsistent quality to his game. He's a star, just not yet a finished one. Few players this postseason committed more spectacular turnovers than Doughty's giveaway against New York in the first period of Game 1. He lost the puck at the Rangers' blue line while attempting to drag it past New York wing Benoit Pouliot, who roared the other way to score an easy breakaway goal. Doughty redeemed himself two periods later, however, by putting the puck between his skates to evade Rangers winger Derek Dorsett and beat Lundqvist with a wrist shot. "Who could make plays like that?" says Lombardi. "Well, Bourque, but he didn't reach his prime until 27. Drew's best days are ahead of him."
The same could be true for the Kings. They have 17 players left from the 24 on their 2012 championship roster, and Lombardi says he wants to minimize turnover again this off-season. He has only a handful of free agents: winger Dwight King is restricted; Gaborik and defensemen Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell are unrestricted.
Over the last few years Lombardi has made more calls like the one he made to Lamoriello eight years ago, asking for advice from executives in other sports, including the Lakers, 49ers and Patriots. "I want to know how they keep it going," he says. "How do you adapt but stay on top?"
Lombardi says the best way to stay on top is with defense—the Kings' recent burst of offensive potency aside. "Even when guys like [wide receivers Lynn] Swann and [John] Stallworth emerged, the Pittsburgh Steelers didn't lose the Steel Curtain mentality," he said during L.A.'s on-ice celebration last Friday. Seconds after invoking the Steelers, Lombardi was told that Chuck Noll, the coach of Pittsburgh's first four championship teams, had died a few hours earlier. "Today?" Lombardi asked. "His teams were great examples for so many years." No relation to another legendary sports executive who shares his surname, Lombardi may be setting an example with his team too. The phone calls will soon be coming to him.