2016 seems like such a long time ago.
It was in then that a 26-year-old Drew Doughty won his first and only Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman. Per Hockey-Reference, his stats for the 2015-16 were outstanding: 14 goals, 37 assists, +24 rating, and an average time on ice of 28:01 for the LA Kings.
It could be argued that he should have won the Norris again in 2018, as his statistics were similarly outstanding – he finished in second in the voting behind Victor Hedman.
As the 2018-19 season drew (pardon the pun) to a close, Doughty was in need of a new contract. Even at 30 years old, LA Kings management was confident that Doughty’s spectacular play would continue for several years and secured his services by giving him an eight-year, $88-million dollar contract.
The LA Kings put up the cash. Now Drew Doughty needs to produce
It should be noted that Drew Doughty’s play dropped off in 2018-19 compared to 2017-18. Although he still averaged over 26 minutes of TOI (time on ice) per game, he scored 15 fewer points in the latter season. Even more alarming, his plus-minus dropped from +23 rating in 2017-18 to -34 rating in 2018-19.
In all fairness to Doughty, the entire LA Kings team took a nosedive – they went from making the playoffs in 2017-18 to finishing last in the Western Conference in 2018-19. Feeling that Doughty, and for that matter, the team would rebound, management made signing their number one defenseman long-term a priority.
The team finished in second to last place in the Western Conference, and Doughty, simply put, had another subpar season. His point totals were about the same as 2018-19, and although his plus-minus slightly improved, his play was not worthy of the $11 million per year salary he was now commanding. So what has gone wrong for Drew Doughty?
One theory for the decline in the star defenseman’s play is that he has been simply trying to do too much. There is no denying Doughty has a competitive streak, and while that has helped propel him to the top of his game – it might have hurt him when the team’s fortunes soured.
Over the past two seasons and into this season, there are several examples of Doughty taking shots when there is no shooting lane, trying to force risky passes, unnecessarily pinching, and at times being caught out of position. With the LA Kings offense drying up, Doughty may very well feel he has to do more to create it.
Another train of thought says Doughty’s decline is due to a lack of consistency in his defense partners. His former regular defense partner, Jake Muzzin, was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs in January 2019, and it seemed to accelerate his fall from grace. Since the trade of Muzzin, the left side of Doughty’s defense pairing has become a revolving door – and he couldn’t seem to develop chemistry with any of them.
This offseason, the LA Kings brought in veteran defenseman Olli Maatta to share the blueline with him. In three games played this season, the pair seem to be out of sync, although they appeared to play better together in the second game. Three games is a very small sample size, especially with a short training camp and no preseason games, but it is a situation worth monitoring. Drew Doughty has spoken very highly of young Tobias Bjornfot, and if Doughty and Maatta can not get on the same page, it may be time to have Bjornfot play regularly with Doughty.
A question that is worth asking is that if Drew Doughty has become complacent. By the age of 30, he has accomplished more in his career than most in the NHL will: two Stanley Cups, two Olympic gold medals, and a Norris trophy. To go with these achievements, Doughty also has a contract that has made him a very wealthy man. The 2019-20 season was paused on March 12th, 2020, and although they were on a seven-game winning streak, there was no chance the LA Kings were going to make the playoffs.
Even still, there was, for a while, a chance the regular season could start back up. When asked what he was doing to stay prepared, Doughty was quoted as saying, “I don’t know what I’m working out for, exactly.” This quote certainly raised eyebrows, but it was also in the context of the uncertainty if the Kings season was going to resume. I don’t believe Doughty insinuated giving up, but the perception certainly didn’t help matters.
So what should the LA Kings do?
A trade is out of the question at this point, as he has seven seasons (including the 2021 campaign) left on his contract that has an AAV of $11 million-plus a full no-move clause for the first four years. A buyout would save the Kings plenty of cap space over the remainder of the contract – $3.7 million the next two seasons and $7.7 million for the remaining four seasons.
The problem with a buyout is it adds a $3.2 million cap hit for another six seasons after the contract was originally supposed to end after the 2026-27 season. I doubt Kings management wants to get into another Mike Richards-like salary cap situation.
With these drastic actions off of the table, that means Drew Doughty and the Kings will have to figure this out on the fly. At 31 years old, Doughty is far from “washed up.” Finding a consistent defense partner is a must, and as the Kings defense prospects develop, they will be able to shoulder more of the road – which will help tremendously.
Wearing an “A” on his sweater, Doughty has a big leadership responsibility with the Kings, and he will be needed as a leader for the young players that are on the way. Coach Todd McLellan appears to no longer be content being in a rebuild and is demanding that the team improve. For this to work, it has to apply to everyone – including veterans like Doughty. Perhaps a back to the basics approach is exactly what is needed.