Drew Doughty a keeper from start
Kings defenseman, 20, plays well beyond his years and just keeps getting better
LOS ANGELES -- Los Angeles Kings general manager Dean Lombardi must have thought the kid was putting him on. While he sat in the home of Drew Doughty before the NHL draft two years ago, Doughty, who was raised in London, Ontario, a city halfway between Toronto and Detroit, said he grew up as a huge Kings fan and dreamed of one day wearing the team's silver and black uniform.
Surely this was a line he had used with the other teams who had stopped by to visit him. Doughty's father, Paul, was a Montreal Canadiens fan, and his mother, Connie, was a Toronto Maple Leafs supporter. There was no way a Canadian boy living in this household dreamed of playing for a team in Los Angeles, a team that had made the playoffs only four times and had won just a single postseason series since making the Stanley Cup Finals in 1993.
Sensing Lombardi's skepticism, Connie took Lombardi, and the rest of the Kings' management team who had traveled to their home, upstairs to Doughty's room and opened the doors to a scene straight out of a 1990s Kings catalogue.
There was a Kings pillowcase, a Kings phone, old jerseys of Wayne Gretzky and Kelly Hrudey pinned to a wall and a couple of Gretzky posters taped to another wall. These weren't items he had just purchased to impress the Kings' brass, these were dusty collectables Doughty had accumulated over the years.
"My mom hasn't changed my room since I was a little kid," Doughty said. "I haven't lived there since I was 15, so my mom never changed it, but I was a big Kings fan growing up because of Wayne Gretzky. He's my favorite player, and when I was really young he played for the Kings and that became my team."
As impressive as his Kings-themed room was, Lombardi was more impressed by the framed jerseys Doughty had after playing for Canada in the World U-17 Hockey Challenge and the World Junior Hockey Championship. It wasn't so much that Doughty was a key member of those squads. Lombardi already knew that. It was that Doughty didn't frame the jerseys to show his name and number on the back as many players would. Each one had the Canadian maple leaf facing forward.
"It was truly indicative of what he's all about," Lombardi said.
Needless to say, Lombardi was sold on Doughty before he left the home but he wanted to give this self-proclaimed Gretzky nut one more quiz. So as they sat with Doughty at the scouting combine three weeks before the draft in Ottawa, Lombardi played a game of fill-in-the-blank with Doughty:
"Wayne Gretzky was a ...?" he asked.
Doughty shot out one noun after another but none of them was the one Lombardi wanted to hear. Doughty was a player who could change the fortunes of the franchise; Lombardi needed to know how he envisioned himself and the Kings in the future.
"Champion," Doughty said. "Playmaker. ... Role model. ..."
Finally, Doughty blurted it out: "Winner!"
That's all Lombardi wanted to hear. Soon after, Lombardi would learn that Jack Ferreira, the Kings' special assistant, had written the magic word on a slip of paper and held it up behind him so Doughty could see it. Lombardi still has the piece of paper taped up in his office.
"I'll always remember that interview," Doughty said. "It makes sense now. He wants winners. That's Dean's philosophy. If we want to win a Cup, we need winners on the team and I feel like we have a lot of those guys in the dressing room and that's why this year we feel we have a good chance to win the Stanley Cup."
Doughty smiles and looks down at his skates, shaking his head, as he hears the names of players he recently has been compared to.
The 20-year-old Doughty may be young, but as a student of hockey who watches old games with the same conviction as a cinema major devouring classic films, he understands the significance of being mentioned with those legends.
After a recent practice, Doughty reflects on the fact that he's a defenseman at all, let alone someone you might compare to the all-time greats.
"I always wanted to play forward," Doughty said. "I switched from forward to defense when I was 12. They wanted me to play D in camp because they were a little short on defenseman and I was supposed to go back to forward when the team was made, but they kept me back on D and obviously it worked out for the best."
He remembers his junior coach deciding to switch him to defense, despite the fact that Doughty was the top scorer on the team. The coach told him he could be a complete player: scorer, playmaker and defender, and eventually Doughty started to embrace the role.
"It was real tough at first," Doughty said. "I was one of our top forwards and I loved getting points and I was pretty good defensively. When I was told they wanted me to switch back there I wasn't too keen on the idea and it took a lot of convincing from my parents and from the coach to finally do it, but I finally did it."
Though he loved to score, Doughty was actually a defensive player at heart.
He had been a goalie when he played soccer, a sport he played competitively until he was 13.His father and mother played soccer, his sister Chelsea was named after their favorite soccer club in London and as a boy Doughty had once thought he had just as much chance to make it on the pitch as he did the ice.
"I think one of my best attributes is my vision," said Doughty, who was named after Drew Pearson, the former Dallas Cowboys receiver who was his mom's favorite player. "As a goalie in soccer you have to read situations and see where other players are and I think playing soccer for all those years did help me be a better defenseman. I've always been blessed with great vision. I don't know what it is, but it's probably the best thing about my game."
Well, that and his mesmerizing spin-o-rama, an elusive pirouette with the puck that has become his signature move on the ice. He certainly didn't invent the move, which was popularized by Orr and Savard, but he may actually execute it better than any of his predecessors.
Doughty doesn't remember the first time he attempted the move. He claims it just came to him naturally on the ice as he was trying to elude another player when he was 12 years old.
"When I was real young and started doing it, I actually got benched because they told me it would never work in the OHL or NHL, so I guess I proved them wrong," Doughty said. "It's one of my favorite moves. Some people might consider it risky or showboating, but in my opinion it's just a good move to make. I feel comfortable doing it now. Even if the checker reads the spin-o-rama on me the worst that can happen really is I backhand it back into the zone and we start the cycle again. It's really not that high risk in my opinion."
Kings coach Terry Murray smiles when he's asked about Doughty's spin-o-rama. He remembers watching Doughty step onto the ice for the first time at Kings training camp two years ago and executing the move effortlessly against grizzled veterans who marveled at the youngster's control of the puck.
"You can tell a player that has it," Murray said. "And he has it. It's natural for him. It comes easy, it's instinctive, there's no hesitation through the thought process. He just goes out and plays the game. From the first day of his first training camp we knew we had a special player."
Willie Mitchell knew what kind of player Doughty was before Mitchell signed with the Kings in the offseason. The 33-year-old defenseman, who is is now Doughty's linemate, was on the Vancouver Canucks team that outlasted the Kings in six games in the first round of last season's playoffs.
Doughty had already established himself as one of the best defensemen in the game before playing his first postseason game. He had been named a finalist for the Norris Trophy (given to the NHL's top defenseman) and is the odds-on favorite to become the second-youngest recipient of the trophy this season, after losing out to Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks last season.
He led the Kings in ice time during the 2010 season and postseason, and tied for the team lead in goals and points against the Canucks after a thrilling Game 3 performance in which he tied Kings playoff records with three assists and four points.
Even Canucks fans, who had seen Doughty carry the Canadian flag around the ice after Canada's thrilling 3-2 overtime win over the U.S. in the Olympic gold medal game two months earlier, cheered every time his name was called.
Doughty had certainly established himself as one of the league's up-and-coming stars when he first met Mitchell, a respected journeyman who had played for five teams since 1999 after playing six years of college and junior hockey.
Mitchell had been all over the map during his NHL career and was simply looking to fit in when Doughty came to him after he signed his contract recently and said, "Willie, you can take my number."
Mitchell, who had worn the No. 8 in Vancouver, couldn't believe the offer. Doughty was a Norris finalist and gold-medal winner wearing the No. 8. His first Kings sweater even had the number -- well "08" to be exact -- to signify the year he was drafted.
"I was surprised. He's played so well with the No. 8, but I just think that speaks volumes about who he is as a person and how he respects the game," said Mitchell, who graciously declined the offer and took No. 33 instead.
Doughty laughs when asked why he would give up the number with which he has become identified.
"It's not a big deal," he said. "It's just a number."
So says the player who first won over Lombardi and the Kings' brass two years earlier by framing the front of his jerseys instead of the back.
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.