By Corey Masisak - NHL.com Staff Writer
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- When a 21-year-old kid signs a document that will pay him $56 million, there are going to be changes.
For Drew Doughty, he made the transition from promising young star to highest-paid player on his team in September, but it didn't go as smoothly as he would have hoped. After missing training camp because of prolonged contract negotiations, Doughty signed his new contract and joined the Los Angeles Kings on their European excursion to start the season.
He was injured four games into the campaign, and after he came back, he wasn't meeting the incredibly high expectations, both externally and internally.
"Yeah, I think that's probably why I struggled the first half of the year, put all that pressure on myself with a big contract," Doughty said. "I just wasn't doing the things I knew I could. I wasn't happy coming to the rink every day. I was disappointed in my play. I was disappointed that I wasn't playing up to the standards I had got myself into. Finally things started turning around. My play definitely got a lot better.
"Every single game I was going out there, I knew everyone expected me -- I needed to put up some points, play well defensively, have a plus-rating. I put all that pressure on myself and everything just kind of stirred up in my mind, and I just wasn't myself. It is hard to live up to those expectations, but now I've realized that you just have to put all that stuff in the back of your head and be yourself."
When the calendar flipped to 2012, Doughty had just two goals and 15 points in 34 games. More than just his plus-minus rating (minus-4 at the time), Doughty did not look like the two-way force that earned him a Norris Trophy nomination as a 20-year-old in 2010.
The team was struggling, and Darryl Sutter replaced Terry Murray behind the bench. What the Kings also needed was a personal turnaround from Doughty, and after the New Year he became a dominant defenseman again.
He had eight goals and 21 points in 43 games, and his strong offensive play has continued through the postseason.
"I just realized that I was coming here and not enjoying myself," Doughty said. "That's the reason that I play this game, because I have so much fun doing it. I enjoy going on the ice every day. Once I realized I wasn't having fun, I just decided to refocus and not worry about that stuff. I just put that in the back of my mind and didn't care what people said, and I started having fun.
"I play my best when I'm relaxed and having fun. I'm still serious, still focused on the game, but if I'm laughing, enjoying the music on the bench and stuff like that, that's when I'm at my best. Everyone is different, but I know what I have to do to be at my best."
Doughty didn't win the Norris Trophy in 2010 -- he finished third in the voting behind Duncan Keith and Mike Green. His team is now two wins from the Stanley Cup, and there is another individual trophy he is in contention for.
He had three goals and 12 points in 16 games, and he's a plus-12 while averaging more than 26 minutes per game. Those figures, plus the general impact he's had for the Kings, has made him one of the team's leading contenders for the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Doughty added a signature moment to his resume Saturday night in Game 2. He collected the puck in his own zone and went end-to-end, dekeing past two New Jersey players before using another as a screen on a shot that beat Martin Brodeur for the first tally of the game.
"I just had the speed and they were flat-footed in the neutral zone," Doughty said. "If a guy's coming at you full speed and you're flat-footed, it is almost impossible to stop him. I knew I had that speed that they didn't. I just had to make a couple jukes and use that guy as a screen and put it in the net.
"I had a bunch [of text messages] from friends and family back home. Most of my goals seem to just be shots from the point. It is not too often that you get to score a highlight-reel goal as a D-man, so I was happy to do that."
It was a rough start to the season, and one Doughty will remember as adverse but ultimately rewarding -- very much so if the Kings win two more games. Doughty had a lot of growing up to, and 56 million reasons to do so.
Pressure was something he didn't handle well at the start of this season, but it is a testament to his growth as a player that not only does it no longer bother him, he has embraced it.
"I'm having a lot of fun right now. This is the best time of year," Doughty said. "I know in order for us to be successful, I've got to be the best defenseman on the ice every night. Even though I kind of put that pressure on myself and I'm having fun. I think that is when I am at my best. I'm enjoying that first shift every game, and being in this moment in the spotlight.
"I know it is the Stanley Cup Final and it is do-or-die. There is a lot of stuff to think about, but it is just a moment you've got to enjoy. At this stage of the year, I want to be at my best. The way I'm going to do that, be successful, is having fun and be myself."