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HELENE ELLIOTT

Kings measure Drew Doughty's growth in leaps and bounds

Doughty, 20, already is one of the league's top defensemen and will be counted to lead the Kings as they try to build on last season's playoff appearance.

October 08, 2010|Helene Elliott

By 2008, the Kings had been bad enough for long enough to get some prime draft picks, but the No. 2 selection — their reward for finishing next to last — was crucial to accelerating their rebuilding process. They couldn't mess this up.

Gifted center Steven Stamkos was the clear No. 1, bound for Tampa Bay. After that, there was a lot of talent but no consensus.

One stood out, however, to Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi. He sensed something special in defenseman Drew Doughty, who grew up sleeping on a Kings pillowcase and using a Kings telephone because he loved Wayne Gretzky.

Like everyone else, Lombardi saw Doughty's remarkable hockey sense — and the baby fat that had teams questioning the kid's conditioning. But Lombardi also saw solid character and fire.

"You're never sure even when you're sure. You're dealing with an 18-year-old draft," Lombardi said. "But once we had done all the research from watching him play, meeting him after games, meeting with the combine, meeting his family, we formed that conclusion. So far, I think we've been right."

After two seasons, one Olympic gold medal, one Norris Trophy runner-up finish and a second-team NHL all-star selection for Doughty — and a playoff appearance for the Kings — that decision stands among the best in franchise history.

Doughty, 20, is on the cusp of superstardom. He's taking the Kings along for a ride that could launch them atop the Pacific Division and Western Conference.

"I think we've got the guys in the room to be a great team, and if we do win that division and go into the playoffs that we have the team to make it to that Stanley Cup finals," he said.

"We're really confident in here that we're one of the best teams in the league, and we're going to play like that every night."

In reaching the playoffs last season for the first time since 2002, the Kings tied a club record with 46 wins and set a record by earning 51 points on the road. Expectations are higher for them — and for Doughty.

"For him, it will be similar to what this team's challenge will be this year," said defenseman Willie Mitchell, who signed as a free agent in August and has been paired with Doughty. "He's dealing with the success he had last year and how he can do that again."

What can he do for an encore? What he did last season, only more consistently.

Start with unleashing his hard, accurate shot.

"He gets it at that perfect level where it's just above a goalie's pad where you can score, where someone can get a tip on it. He finds a way to get it through," Mitchell said.

And with Coach Terry Murray giving Doughty and Jack Johnson more freedom to jump up into plays, it's easy to imagine Doughty surpassing the 16 goals and 59 points he scored last season and winning the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman.

"His first four, five steps, his get-up-and-go to join the rush is exceptional," Mitchell said. "And he competes. He loves the game. He has a big passion for the game. That's probably the best quality you can ever have as a hockey player. You find the people who love it and care about it the most are usually the best."

At a muscular 6 feet and 212 pounds, Doughty relishes dishing out tooth-rattling hits. He didn't get top marks on preseason conditioning tests, but Lombardi wasn't concerned.

"When you've had that much talent your whole life you really don't understand how important it is and it usually takes them a while to figure it out," Lombardi said. "Going back to his competitiveness and wanting to win, he's going to figure out, 'If I'm going to be the best I can be, I've got to do that.' I see progress."

Doughty has progressed by his own measure.

"I've made huge jumps from my first year. My first year I was confident and I had a good year, but I just wasn't the player I am now," he said. "It's a lot of little things. Positionally, I feel I'm better. I feel I'm smarter. I see the game even better now. And I just see little openings that I never saw back in the day.

"My confidence level has grown. I'm more comfortable with all the guys in the room and the coaching staff, so now I kind of play my game and go out every night and do my thing."

Some things do take a while to learn.

According to winger Wayne Simmonds, Doughty is as sloppy as ever at the South Bay home they share.

"He just leaves things lying there," Simmonds said. "I can't really say too much because I'm the same way."

Simmonds would know if Doughty had been spoiled by success. He says that's not the case.

"He's the most humble guy I've ever met in my life," Simmonds said. "He downplays everything more than anyone else of his status I've ever met. …We're kind of growing up together. It's a good situation."

And it could get much better for the Kings, who now have playoff experience to build on.

"Personally and from listening to the other guys, that playoff run is going to help us out a ton. It was so intense," Doughty said. "We know how hard we have to play and we know the emotional level we have to be at.

"Everyone's talking in the room and everyone is confident we're going to be one of the best teams this year."

helene.elliott@latimes.com

twitter.com/helenenothelen

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