It’s no secret that a major contributor to the LA Kings defensive struggles in the early goings of the 2021 season was the development of chemistry between Drew Doughty and newly acquired Olli Maatta. The latter was brought in over the offseason with the notion that a veteran partner would help Doughty return to Norris Trophy form.
“Well, we do think the game the same way.” Maatta explained in training camp. “And that’s a big thing. I think especially the last two days being with him…he talks a lot, so that’s one of the key things. We have to both just communicate — like what do you like to do in different situations? So when the game comes, you know, it’s automatic.”
On paper, it was supposed to be a perfect addition. But through the first three games, the duo struggled to gel, accumulating a combined -4 rating. Doughty had just two shots on goal – one that ricocheted off Blake Lizotte‘s leg and found the back of the net.
With the Kings trailing 2-0 at the end of the first period on Thursday night, head coach Todd McLellan switched defensive pairings, promoting rookie Mikey Anderson up with Doughty. Maatta was bumped down with Matt Roy on the second pairing.
There is no debate – Anderson has been the Kings most consistent defenseman this season. He and Roy were the best pairing for the team’s blue line, but a change was sorely needed. When asked if the switch was pre-planned, McLellan kept his answer brief.
“No, it was made during the game.”
While the Kings continue to shake off the physical and mental rust from not playing in over 300 days, pairing Anderson with Doughty had an immediate impact. In the second period against the Avalanche on Thursday, the LA Kings headed to a five-on-three power play with Jeff Carter sending a pass back to the blue line where Doughty one-timed a shot past Colorado goalie Hunter Miska.
Doughty logged a season-high 30:31 of on-ice time, and Anderson tallied a career-high 25:12 of time on-ice. The 21-year-old product of the University of Minnesota-Duluth has ten NHL games to his name, and while playing 25 minutes a night would be a tough ask, it is the best thing for the LA Kings right now.
That said, I would not expect [Todd] McLellan to abandon the Maatta-Doughty pairing, as Maatta accounted for just over 11 minutes of on-ice time on Thursday night. The Kings gave up almost nothing to acquire the 26-year-old, but he still figures to be an important piece as he looks to find his footing in Los Angeles.
Still, the switch allowed Doughty to play his game as a puck-moving defenseman, registering three shots on net while the defensive-minded Anderson stayed home.
“I think the change helped,” the LA Kings head coach explained after the game. “I think we were getting caught on the ice for some fairly long shifts, whether it was them hemming us in or us trying to extend a shift. Maybe looking for some offense that wasn’t there early in the game. You know, even late into the second, we were still doing that. I thought in the third, we managed shift length a little bit better. We played as a fresher team. And that’s the only way you can play against that team with the pace and the skill they come at you with.”
It’s probably a safe bet that Anderson and Doughty will be paired when the LA Kings play the St. Louis Blues on Saturday night, as it should be. Whether Maatta will move back up to the top pairing remains to be determined. However, it should be noted that he mostly played on the second and third pairings in his one and only season in Chicago.
In the playoffs, Maatta scored three goals and six points in nine games with the Blackhawks paired with Connor Murphy or Slater Koekkoek. Perhaps the best thing going forward for the LA Kings is to allow Maatta to get comfortable playing with either Matt Roy or Sean Walker and revisit the top pairing in the future.