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Kings' Drew Doughty hoping for better memories

The young defenseman, who is continually teased about a rookie mistake, could help lead the team to the playoffs this season.

October 03, 2009|Helene Elliott

Drew Doughty might lead the Kings to the playoffs this season. The 19-year-old defenseman might develop into a perennial All-Star and win the Norris trophy often enough to buy a tuxedo for the awards ceremony, not rent.

But not even then will he be allowed to forget his welcome-to-the-NHL moment last season.

The Kings were playing Colorado and Doughty found himself one-on-one with winger Ryan Smyth, the gifted rookie against the wily veteran.

One second, Smyth was in front of him. The next, Smyth had gotten through him and the puck was in the net.

Doughty remembers it well. His teammates make sure of that.

"We still tease him to this day," said Sean O'Donnell, his defense partner.

Probably because they know such moments will become rare for Doughty, who made the all-rookie team last season and led NHL rookies with an average ice time of 23 minutes 49 seconds.

"Every so often someone will throw out a chirp about it," Doughty said. "It was definitely a moving part of my first season, getting dangled by a player like that, such a veteran player.

"It [stunk], but because it was him, it made it a little better on my behalf. I'm not as embarrassed."

Funny how these things happen, but Smyth was traded to the Kings in July and is among Doughty's fans. Looking at Doughty, Smyth sees a cornerstone of a team that opens the season tonight against Phoenix at Staples Center fully expecting to make the playoffs.

"He's very young, but he's pretty experienced in regard to the talent that he's got and the vision," Smyth said. "He sees the ice well. I believe he's like a sponge. He just soaks it all up, and that's all you can ask for in a young player."

The Kings got more than they could have dreamed when they chose Doughty second in the 2008 draft.

They got precise passing and extraordinary mobility, a gem in a potentially strong defense corps that again includes O'Donnell, Matt Greene and Jack Johnson and added premier shot-blocker Rob Scuderi this summer as a free agent.

As always, the Kings' goaltending will largely determine their fate, and Jonathan Quick must prove he can be as sharp over 60-plus starts as he was in 44 games last season. Smyth's fearlessness around the net should spark the offense, as it inspired Anze Kopitar to go to the net during exhibition games.

But the Kings, accustomed to selling hope because they had little else to offer, now have legitimate cause for optimism. If Doughty can build on his remarkable rookie season, their eternally vexing rebuilding process will turn an important corner.

"He just has to not take a step back," O'Donnell said. "He did a lot of amazing things last year, but I think he'd be the first to admit he made a lot of mistakes when you're 19 and playing against the best men in the world. I think you're going to see a little bit more of the great plays, but I think you're going to consistently see less of the plays where he wishes he could have that one back."

A year ago Doughty wondered if he belonged here. Now, he's ready to assert himself in the locker room and on the ice, eager to jump up into the offense to improve on his six-goal, 27-point performance last season.

Adding muscle during summer workouts at home in London, Canada, was his first step toward making that possible.

"My first exhibition game I was making bigger hits than I probably would have last season," he said. "I felt stronger in that sense and I feel faster as well.

"I feel more comfortable out there and more comfortable with the guys. I know I have to improve on my last season in all aspects, not just defensively but offensively. I just have to help this team get to the playoffs."

O'Donnell, who will miss the first two games because of a suspension he incurred in an exhibition game, is teaching Doughty the nuances of a position that often requires years to master.

Since O'Donnell made his NHL debut in the 1994-95 season -- when Doughty was in kindergarten -- he's familiar with opponents' tendencies, such as which way they lean or whether they go to the forehand or backhand in certain situations. He's trying to impress upon Doughty the importance of knowing those details.

"At every age he's probably been the best kid and he's gotten by just on talent, and there's some nights that he can do that," O'Donnell said. "But there are some nights where he still needs to learn that when you're playing against other talented players little things can also give you an edge."

Doughty appreciates the help.

"Without him last year I definitely don't think I would have had the success I had," Doughty said. "We're always talking about little things we can do to improve. He talks to me a lot on the ice, and I think talk is one of the key things to having a successful D pairing. He's taught me to talk more, so I think I've improved on that this year."

Coach Terry Murray has seen that. "I'm just going to let that evolve by itself. I'm not going to push him along on it," Murray said. "More of that will come out, I think, as we get through this year."

For Doughty, it won't be a successful season if it ends after 82 games.

"I think a lot of people underestimate how good of a team we are in here, and I know that in here we believe that we are a great team," said Doughty, who's sharing a South Bay home with winger Wayne Simmonds.

"If everyone just does that little thing to step up their game and we play as a team and do the little things right that Coach Terry Murray wants us to do then we should be a playoff team. I know we're going to be in the playoffs."

Which would produce something new and far more pleasant for his memory book.

--

helene.elliott@latimes.com

twitter.com/helenenothelen

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