Drew Doughty’s overtime goal against Chicago on Saturday was classic Doughty.
Jersey flapping as he skated the puck out of his own end and through the neutral zone, seconds before tucking a loose puck behind Corey Crawford to give the Kings a 4-3 win. It was classic in the sense that we haven’t seen much of that from Doughty this season. In fact, that was only Doughty’s second end-to-end rush of the season, at even-strength. His first came earlier in the same game. There’s been a lot more glass-and-out than coast-to-coast from one of the premier puck movers in the game as the Kings continue to adapt to a new system, implemented by new head coach Todd McLellan. Doughty’s role has shifted from puck-mover to last-man-back defensive conscience on a team that has seen an improvement in expected goals against, despite ranking 27th in actual goals against per-game, at even-strength. Goaltending and terrible special teams have sunk this Kings so far this season but that’s a story for another day.
This is about a veteran defenseman embracing a new role. A future Hall-of-Famer who’s used to driving play up the ice, changing the way he plays. Perhaps, out of necessity as a 29-year old veteran with almost 1,000 combined regular season and playoff games under his belt. More likely, it’s a concerted effort to improve team results. Doughty spoke recently about the system change under McLellan, saying, “It’s a different process, but something that we’re really happy about. You can see how dominant we can be when we execute the system.” That system appears to be, get it out, get it in and get after it.
The Kings are dumping the puck out a lot more than they did under Willie Desjardins. Kings defensemen dumped the puck out on 22 percent of their exits last season which was the lowest dump-out rate in the NHL – this season they are dumping it out 36 percent of the time, 4th highest in the league. This risk-averse approach has seen opposing teams spend significantly less time with the puck in the Kings end than last year, which has helped the team achieve the 5th lowest expected goals against (reflection of team defense) of any team, through 14 games.
Not only are the Kings dumping the puck out more, they are also dumping it in more often than they did last season, another part of McLellan’s ‘system’ that emphasizes a strong forecheck. L.A. has done a good job disrupting breakouts with their aggressive forecheck and the Kings rank 11th in scoring chances per-game created off-the-forecheck, 6th in goals. Even though the Kings sit middle-of-the-pack in total goals per-game at even-strength, they rank 3rd in expected goals, trailing only Carolina and Boston. Last season, the Kings ranked 30th.
Top-5 in expected goals for and against at even-strength is an encouraging sign for a team that finished with the worst record in the Western Conference last season. To play this way consistently requires a buy-in from young players and veterans alike and Doughty seems to have no problem adjusting his game to fit the system. “I’m used to being that right defenseman who’s able to step up on my guys in the neutral zone and hip check guys and stuff like that, now I’m the rover that’s in the middle of the ice letting everything happen to cheat back for breakouts,” Doughty added.
As “the rover” who “cheats back for breakouts”, Doughty no longer has the luxury of doing at 5-on-5 what he did at 3-on-3 in overtime against the Hawks – skate the puck the length of the ice. He does still jump into the rush occasionally but not nearly as often as he did a couple of seasons ago.
In 2017-18, Doughty finished 2nd in Norris voting, thanks in part, to his elite puck moving ability. Doughty scored 60 points and led all defensemen in zone exits while finishing 3rd in zone entries. This season, Doughty has 5 entries at even-strength, which doesn’t even rank top-3 among defensemen on his own team. His transition numbers, compared to the 2017-18 season, are night and day
McLellan spoke about Doughty getting used to his system, saying, “It’s not going to be easy. Change is hard, and it is for all of us. It’s human nature just to do what you’re comfortable with. In my mind, Drew’s a Norris Trophy winner regardless of whether we’re playing pond hockey or whether we’re playing in Game 7 of a championship or Game 13 or 14 of the regular season.
“It’s hard to be perfect, and I think Drew’s striving to be perfect right now. It doesn’t exist, so just be the best you can be. I think he’s getting better every night.”
While Doughty isn’t entering the offensive zone with the puck nearly as often as he has in the past, he is doing a good job of preventing opposing players from doing so. Doughty has denied 56 percent of the zone entries attempts against him at even-strength this season, up from 47 percent last season. When attacking forwards have gained the blueline, Doughty has done well to prevent them from creating scoring chances.
And because he’s not up in the play as often, the Kings always have at least one man back when he’s on the ice. Doughty is one of only two defensemen to have played at least 100 even-strength minutes without facing an odd-man rush against. A testament to his adaptation to the role he now plays and the teams overall commitment to the system their coach employs at even-strength. The Kings have allowed the fewest odd-man rushes of any team this season. This isn’t to say there isn’t room for improvement – not by a long shot. The team does has 5 wins in 14 games, after all. Doughty has said he want to be on the ice for fewer goals against. Part of that, a big part, is goaltending. Part of that is the penalty kill and part of it is the Kings inability to limit chances once teams do enter their zone and establish possession.
Yes, there are going to be growing pains in Los Angeles but the buy-in from Doughty is impressive. It would be easy to, as McLellan put it, do what you’re comfortable with, given how successful Doughty has been in his career and where the Kings are at in terms of their roster. However, Doughty seems to be all-in with the style of play his coach thinks works best for the team. That said, Doughty has always had a flair for the dramatic and he’s about to play his one game per year in his hometown. Maybe we’ll see that jersey flapping a few times tonight in Toronto.
(Photo by Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images)