Surly and I have divided our LA Kings’ season preview into four segments: (1) Defense, (2) Forwards, (3) Goaltending and (4) Coaching. We start with a defense first approach, a topic we break into three parts because goodness knows we have plenty to write.
“Let our opponents lament my greatness while we achieve nothing less.”
From dictionary.com: ‘Doughty’ (adjective): steadfastly courageous and resolute; valiant.
If ever there is a player who is true to his name, it is our very own number 8. Drew Doughty is the epitome of everything today’s Kings seek to represent and the image in which Dean Lombardi is creating this team. Smart. Tough. Talented. Character driven. Self motivated. Leader.
Two seasons ago, he became the apple of our eye. In 2009-2010, Drew Doughty showed the rest of the NHL what we already knew – that he is arguably the most talented defenseman in the league and is looking to solidify his reputation as one of the greats to ever play the position. Comparisons to Ray Bourque are not only merited but, at this early point of his career, expected in light of his Norris trophy nomination.
So, to what do the Kings have to look forward from our young superstar? Simple. More. His 16 goals and 43 assists are a starting point. Those numbers should get to 20-25 goals and 50 to 60 assists. Those are Norris trophy numbers, as they should be. I haven’t been privy to Drew’s offseason training but if he has worked on the only potential weakness in the arsenal (fitness level), then Doughty may go from a dynamic presence on defense to an unrelenting force. He has already shown game breaking speed, especially with the first step and mid range acceleration. Add an endurance that keeps his play consistent throughout three periods and Drew may find himself on the receiving end of many game winning goals, clutch assists and late period heroics.
On the offensive side of things, the first question is who will be his defensive partner? Rob Scuderi and Willie Mitchell are both defensive defenseman. Each is patient and intelligent. Mitchell brings a physical element that is present to a lesser extent in Scuderi’s game. Will it matter? Yes. A healthy Mitchell frees up Drew to a greater degree. Willie’s positioning may be the best on the team next to Doughty. That will unleash our superstar to skate the puck over the blue line, when necessary, and roam deeper into the scoring areas (read: away from the boards and to the slot and hash marks) for a cannon of a one timer or a low rebound generating wrist shot. Nowhere will this be more apparent than 5 on 5, an area the Kings last season approached with far too much dump and chase and what we certainly hope will be “dumped” for a more puck possession game.
In our own zone, sheer maturity and experience will elevate Drew’s game. He has played two years as a professional and managed to put up a +20 this past season. Look for Drew to become adept at taking away passing lanes, driving forwards to the outside and into the boards (also known as hip checking the s*** out of you) and breaking the Kings’ forwards out with that first pass. While it was not a technical weakness in Drew’s repertoire, if there was one area every Kings’ defenseman last season could have improved upon, it was the latter first pass.
Do I expect Drew Doughty to become the best defenseman in the league? Yes. That is exactly what he should become and remain year in and year out. It is not foolish to expect greatness from the great. To ask for anything less is an insult to Doughty’s talent, game and heart.
“Speak softly and carry a long stick”
Before there were any rumblings of Willie Mitchell potentially becoming a King, I wrote an article asking whether Lombardi should sign the defensive stalwart and presented him with a label true to his form – warrior. Imagine my elation when the Kings signed this veteran to a two year deal, hopefully cementing him as a mobile, agile and hostile presence inside the Kings’ blue line.
Willie wore number 8 for the Canucks. He will have to pick a new number. As a consolation, I hope he plays many minutes with our own number 8, breaking Drew Doughty loose to wreak havoc on opposing goalies. During his tenure with Vancouver, Mitchell brought three aspects to his defensive game: (1) Positioning (2) physical presence (3) passing. He complemented each with a willingness to block shots and contribute on the offensive side (3 goals and 20 assists in a full 2008-2009 season). Willie’s position game is no nonsense. He eliminates space between he and the puck carrier by contact and/or stick work.
On the latter issue, some of you may not know that Willie Mitchell carries the longest stick allowed by the NHL – 63 inches – and he has in the past, on this issue, raise the ire of former Flames’ coach, Mike Keenan. “It’s too long” Keenan was quoted as stating to the media back in February of 2009. Willie responded with, “just in case he doesn’t know over there, I’ve got a tape measure. It’s not my stick that does the work, anyway. It’s my brain. I think it’s a good compliment [from Keenan]. Obviously, he’s worried about me playing against Jarome [Iginla].” In addition to having a little fun at Keenan’s expense (see picture), Mitchell gave Iginla, the Flames, Keenan and the rest of the league fits over his stick work and defensive prowess. If you intended to stick handle around him, you had better be lighting fast because in about half a second, you may be looking at the puck going the other way.
Physically, Mitchell wears the warrior tag as well as any other player in the league. He hits hard once he has you along the boards and there is no getting away. Keep your head down while skating over the blue line or through the neutral zone and he may just take it off for you. Care to visit the front of the Kings’ net? There may be a wall with your name on it. Willie’s game doesn’t just suit our style. It is our style. No one should be more happy than Terry Murray at Mitchell’s acquisition. He was made to Terry Murray’s order.
Willie Mitchell’s most under appreciated game is passing. Each video of him that I watch doesn’t end with him taking a player into the boards or stripping the puck away, but rather controlling and reversing the flow from defense to offense. No where was this deficit lacking more than the playoffs against the Vancouver Canucks. The irony that we acquired an ex-Canuck to fix the issue should not be lost on Kings fans.
In the upcoming second of three segments on the Kings’ defense, we will look at Jack Johnson and Rob Scuderi.