LA Kings: Drew Doughty’s perfect pairing partner remains a mystery

LA Kings (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
LA Kings (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

The LA Kings must find an adequate partner for Drew Doughty.

Flashback to the second game against the Colorado Avalanche. LA Kings head coach Todd McLellan made a defensive switch between the first and second period, swapping Mikey Anderson for Olli Maatta on the team’s first and second defensive pairings, respectively. The Kings roared back, with Adrian Kempe burying the game-winner in the third period.

At the time, the switch was needed. The Kings were staring down the barrel of four straight losses, including overtime, to start the season after the Avalanche tallied two first-period goals. Since then, Maatta has been absent from the lineup with [Todd] McLellan indicating the 26-year-old needed more time to learn the system.

The LA Kings have recently put together a solid stretch of games, winning three out of their last four, including a nail-biting 2-1 victory over the Wild on Tuesday night. Kurtis MacDermid had a great game, scoring his first goal of the year and his fifth overall in an LA Kings uniform. It’s easy to stick with the same lineup when the team is winning, so I would expect no changes heading into Thursday’s matchup.

Will Olli Maatta return to the LA Kings top pairing?

After finishing up with their two-game set, the LA Kings will have a few days off before hosting the Anaheim Ducks at the STAPLES Center for one game next Tuesday. I suspect that Olli Maatta will slot back into the lineup, but the question of if he’ll be on the first pairing with Drew Doughty remains to be determined.

Maatta was acquired in the offseason with the hope that a veteran player would shore up Doughty’s game. The latter’s last two seasons have been a disappointment, but he is one of five veteran players the LA Kings are counting on this season. As noted, swapping Maatta for Anderson was needed to secure the team’s first win of 2021, but the struggles of the Anderson/Doughty pairing are beginning to show.

Advanced 5-on-5 metrics indicate the LA Kings’ top pairing has a 34.4 xGF% (expected-goals-for) in over 65 minutes of on-ice time. For comparison’s sake, Maatta and Doughty accounted for a 47.5 xGF% in 49 minutes on-ice. Still below average, but better than the production between Anderson and Doughty.

LA Kings top pairing - Doughty_Anderson(2)
LA Kings top pairing - Doughty_Anderson(2) /

Anderson is only 21 years old. He has 13 NHL games under his belt, and 22-25 minutes a night is a tough ask. Still, Doughty needs a consistent partner to have a shot of putting up Norris Trophy-worth numbers. I suspect the LA Kings will give the Maatta/Doughty pairing another shot next week but don’t be surprised if the team continues to tinker with pairings going forward.

Tobias Bjornfot was paired with Doughty for the first three games last season before being sent to the AHL’s Ontario Reign. The veteran took the Kings’ 22nd overall pick of the 2019 NHL Draft under his wing last season, and all signs point toward a Bjornfot/Doughty pairing of potentially being a long-term success.

“He’s amazing,” Doughty said during the 2019 training camp. “I love playing with him. His poise out there – it’s nuts. He’s got that same mentality I have…having fun but competing as hard as we can. He just keeps getting better and better.”

Bjornfot recently represented Team Sweden in the 2021 World Juniors and was chosen by his coaches as one of Sweden’s top-three players for the tournament. He was on the Kings’ taxi squad not long ago but was sent to Ontario for AHL training camp and preseason games.

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As noted, the LA Kings will give the Maatta/Doughty every chance to gel, but Bjornfot appears to be the long-term solution for the team’s top pairing. And he could get a head start proving that at some point in the 2021 season.