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The Seven Million Dollar Man

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings
The figure followed him around, almost as though it had become a part of his legal name.

Drew Doughty, seven million dollars.

At some point, the financial windfall must have started to feel like a bit of an anchor. Doughty missed almost all of training camp last fall as his agent negotiated what turned out to be a new eight-year, $56-million contract. The moment the ink dried, expectations on Doughty went through the roof.

The defenseman who two years earlier, at age, 20, had been a Norris Trophy finalist and a darling of Kings fans, suddenly felt the spotlight get hotter. Some fans harbored some resentment over Doughty's holdout, and all fans watched intently to see if Doughty's play would match his new (team-high) average salary.

For a big chunk of this season, it didn't. At times, Doughty looked more like a teenaged rookie than he did when he was a teenaged rookie. Just in time, though, Doughty figured things out, and the level of his play has risen significantly. Not coincidentally, that dovetailed with the arrival of coach Darryl Sutter. Not coincidentally, it also dovetailed with the overall improved play by the Kings.

Doughty, regularly the Kings' leader in average ice time, is thriving in all situations and is a big reason why the Kings are in the conference finals for only the second time in franchise history.

"It's kind of been a roller-coaster ride for me this year," Doughty said this week. "I thought, at times, I've been playing really well, and then there's times that I haven't been playing well. To start off the season like that, not being at camp and with all that bad, kind of, energy I was getting from holding out and stuff like that, it's definitely not how you want to start off a season.

"But everything is turning around now. I think I've found my game again and I think I'm playing really good hockey in the playoffs right now, and I still think I've got a lot better. So, my main focus is, I've got to be the best defenseman on the ice every night, and I've got to make a difference and help our team win."

Doughty is back on the upswing, after a wobbly 36 months or so. The climb was steep. The Kings' No. 2 overall draft pick in 2008, Doughty immediately jumped to the NHL at age 18. He impressed right away, steadily improved and, at the end of his second season, was one of the three finalists for the Norris Trophy, awarded to the NHL's best defenseman. Doughty didn't win, but he had a stellar season.

The wobble started the ensuing spring. Doughty caused some frowns around the Kings' front office when he showed up for training camp in 2010 in less-than-stellar shape. He suffered an early-season concussion and struggled -- mightily at times -- during the first half of the season. Doughty improved later in the season, but when it came time to announce the Norris Trophy finalists, Doughty wasn't even part of the discussions.

Beyond long, contract difficulty loomed. Doughty was due to become a restricted free agent on July 1, 2011. That date passed without Doughty signing a new contract. So did Aug. 1. So did Sept. 1. When training camp opened in mid-September in El Segundo, Doughty remained in the suburban Toronto area. This season, one that carried high expectations for the Kings, seemed destined to start without Doughty.

Finally, on the eve of the Kings' season-opening trip to Europe, Doughty and the Kings reached agreement on the massive new contract. Doughty started the season in his customary role as the Kings' big-minute defenseman, playing in all situations, but his level of play seemed to have dipped even further.

At times, Doughty made uncharacteristically poor decisions and looked tentative. As the Kings, in general, underachieved, Doughty took a large proportion of the criticism -- in part because his holdout and shiny new contract -- and the gloominess hit rock-bottom when coach Terry Murray was fired in mid-December.

Doughty said his lengthy holdout didn't make things difficult for him to focus on hockey at the start of the season, but easily admitted that he didn't perform to expectations, both of others and himself.

"I think, when I first came in, nobody was against me or anything like that," Doughty said. "Everyone made me feel comfortable and the boys made me feel welcome, so it wasn't ever not about hockey. But I did have a lot of pressure on me to produce, with how much I was
making, and I kind of didn't perform how I wanted to. Now that I finally am, I'm feeling confident out there and doing the things I can do."

Who would have guessed that the arrival of Sutter would turn things around for Doughty? When word leaked that Sutter would be the Kings' new coach, Doughty stood in the visitors' locker room in Toronto and talked about how he had heard the new coach was "a bit of a yeller."

Frankly, Doughty looked a little anxious.

Within weeks, though, there was Sutter with his arm around Doughty on the bench, providing constructive criticism and encouragement. Slowly, the Doughty of old re-emerged. It didn't happen overnight, but in increments, Doughty started to look sharper, more engaged, more inc ontrol of himself and the game.

Points aren't everything for a defenseman, but they're part of the story. In 24 games under Murray this season, Doughty had two goals and six assists. In 49 games under Sutter, he had eight goals and 16 assists. More importantly, Doughty had more of an impact on the defensive end, and Doughty said his overall game changed under Sutter, for the better.

"I think so," Doughty said. "With Terry, I think I was a little more patient defensively. I wasn't on top of guys like I am with Darryl now. Darryl wants you on guys so quick, and he wants you to be hard on guys. I think I'm taking the body a lot more now, working hard to pucks, working back into open space for my D partner and the for the goalie and stuff like that. So he has definitely made me learn that you've got to be quick in all areas of the ice, whether you have the puck or not.''

Harder to quantify is Doughty's growth off the ice. One of the Kings' youngest players, he's considered something of a little brother in the Kings' locker room. There's no pretense in Doughty's personality, and he is sometimes the butt of teammates' jokes because of his youthful nature.

That said, there seems to be a growing maturity in Doughty. Previously prone to making bold statements to the media about himself and his teammates, Doughty now is calm and speaks more like a veteran. In this playoff run, he has stayed within the one-game-at-a-time boundaries that coaches prefer.

"I think he's embraced his role a lot," Kings defenseman Matt Greene said. "He's been our number-one defenseman since he got here, I think, minus maybe the first two games of his career. He took over that role, and I think he was doing it more out of fun, just kind of playing the game. That's how he played, how he liked to play. Now he has really embraced it.

"He's our leader on the back end, and he does everything. He plays in every situation, and I think he now really embraces it and enjoys it, too. He kind of revels in it. That's it. I don't think he's any more mature than he was before. I don't think that's the right word. I think it's more mentally acknowledging that.''

Is that, Greene was asked, something that every young defenseman goes through at some point?

"I think everybody does,'' Greene said. "I think once you get past that initial period, when things are going well for you and you're just kind of happy to have a roster spot and play, then you realize, `Hey, I've got to do this every night and be consistent, and that's what they're expecting from me.' You have to bring it every night. I think every guy goes through that process. I just think Drew hit it this year.''

To that, Sutter shrugs. Never a coach prone to over-emphasizing ups and downs, at least publicly, Sutter is all about process and improvement. When Sutter arrived in mid-December and looked at Doughty, he didn't see a struggling defenseman. He saw a deep pool of talent still to be honed and developed.

Sutter put little stock into Doughty's Norris Trophy nomination. After all, Sutter was in Calgary then. Sutter viewed Doughty in the purest terms: as a 22-year-old defenseman who was still growing as a professional.

"That's a fact," Sutter said. "You (media members) have seen it more than I have. You've seen him at the top and you've seen him struggle. There aren't many guys his age in the league that play that position and play that many minutes and play that many situations. So there is going to be peaks and valleys. You just try to keep it as even-keel as possible.

"He's had games where he's been not as good as others, and games where he's been really good. But the one thing that is consistent with him is, he wants to do well. That's the best part of it.''

It's easy to forget, at times, that Doughty is only 22, an age at which many defensemen are just breaking into the NHL, an age at which very few are thriving.

In the years to come, Doughty will need to be a team leader, will need to be a force for a full season. For now, though, he's on track, and seems to be responding well to the guidance he is receiving.

"Just put yourself in his situation,'' Sutter said. "Where were you when you were his age? Where were we when we were his age? We were still deciding what we wanted to do. Were we a junior (in college), or looking for a job? Just do the very same thing. They're just kids.''

Follow Rich Hammond on Twitter at @LAKingsInsider
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