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LA Kings Doughty- "We're better than a lot of teams in the playoff race."
Watching him play defense for the Los Angeles Kings, the first thing you notice about Drew Doughty is that you don't notice him.
Logically, a 19-year-old rookie taken second overall in last summer's draft should be more conspicuous, especially when he's leading his team in ice time (23:40 per game). But Doughty was billed as the draft pick most likely to step right into the NHL without much of a culture shock, and he's met that expectation. He looks like a savvy veteran player his team has depended on for years during big situations.
Like when the Kings called on him and defensive partner Sean O'Donnell to hold the fort during a frantic finale in Washington recently. Doughty deftly guarded the offensive players, at one point wrestling with Alexander Ovechkin in the corner just long enough to avert a scoring chance from the NHL's leading sniper.
"We just got tangled up, and we both kind of fell. It was just fortunate that he fell after me because he would have had a one-timer," said Doughty.
But as confident as he is, sometimes that rookie enthusiasm shines through. Like when the Kings added a critical insurance goal late in the game against the Capitals and Doughty raised his arms and jumped in the air on the Kings bench, like a contestant on a game show.
That rookie zeal also shines through when he talks about the Kings being an unexpected guest in the Western Conference playoff race, and how he believes his team is better than some of the other contenders.
Doughty admitted that he didn't have delusions of grandeur when he joined the Kings as a first-year player out of camp.
"When I came here to the Kings, I really didn't know what to expect," he said, admitting that the team struggled early.
"We're a very good team that just underachieved in the first half of the season. We're better than a lot of teams that are in the playoff race right now."
They have been since Jan. 1, going 8-5-1 overall and 3-1 on a long road trip that ends on Long Island Tuesday night. Powered by two good offensive lines, solid goaltending from Jon Quick and a growing confidence from its young core, the Kings are three points out of the eighth seed.
For Doughty, the maturation process has yielded some surprises. Like, for example, how similar life on the road can be between junior hockey and the NHL.
"There really are a lot of similarities," he said. "[Although] maybe we go to dinner at a lot better places, where back in junior we'd be going to a crappy, less-expensive kind of place."
Doughty said playing in the NHL is harder than a rookie imagines it's going to be, "but at the same time it's easier."
"There's tape-to-tape passes every time, and everyone's so smart. So it's easier that way," he said.
Having the right support around him has helped, too. For every strong young player on the Kings, there are teammates like veteran players and leaders like captain Dustin Brown -- Doughty's roommate -- that are providing guidance in many situations.
For Doughty, one of the primary mentors has been defenseman Sean O'Donnell, acquired from the Anaheim Ducks last year. On CBCSports.com, former Kings coach Marc Crawford said O'Donnell is the "perfect foil" for the rookie, and compared the mentor/student philosophy to those Detroit Red Wings teams that used Steve Yzerman to tutor young players:
This is the job of the veteran player, the one who has been through the hockey playoff wars. He has credibility because he has been there, and it is always this type of example that is the most impressionable for rookies. If they come into the league and are told by the coach to practice in a certain way, the rookie will most likely listen, but only to a certain extent. Rookies are always looking for acceptance and this can only truly come from the veteran players.
Players can fool the media, they can fool the fans, they can fool the coaches, but inside the sanctity of the dressing room, they can never fool their teammates. The word is accountability, and winning teams have it in abundance. And for a young player, it is the most necessary intangible they must learn.
So far, Doughty appears to have the intangibles, the resiliency and the confidence to become a stellar NHL player. What he doesn't have are the flashy numbers or press notes that would earn him a well-deserved Calder Trophy, even if he should be a finalist this season.
Is he keeping tabs on the rest of his draft class?
"You know what? Not really. I'm really good buddies with Luke Schenn [of the Toronto Maple Leafs], and we talk quite a bit. Besides that, I'll check how Stamkos is doing once in a while, but it's not really a battle or anything," he said.
"We'd all like to be the best rookie out of that draft class, just you can say it; but you don't really worry about it."
Does he not worry about it because he feels Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Steve Mason already has the thing sewn up?
"No, not really," he said. "My main focus to helping the LA Kings."
Spoken like a veteran rookie.