With the 2017-18 regular season ending this past weekend, many experts and pundits are releasing their picks for this season’s awards. Among the most hotly debated topics is who will win the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman. Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning appears to be the favorite but I would argue that for my money the best defenseman in the NHL is Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings.
Doughty Sets Career Highs
Prior to this season, Doughty had already received a plethora of accolades – two Stanley Cup championships, two Olympic gold medals, and the 2016 Norris Trophy. Yet, the 2017-18 season might have been Doughty’s best since being drafted by the Kings with the second overall pick in the 2008 NHL Draft. Not only did he set career highs in points (60) and assists (50) but he led the league in ice time with 26:50 per game, making it the fourth straight year that he has been in the top three in ice time per game.
The 2017-18 season is actually the third time in the past four seasons that Doughty has led the NHL in total time on the ice (2200:31). Since entering the league in 2008-09, he is second to Minnesota’s Ryan Suter in total minutes played. But, not all ice time is created equal.
Playing against your opponent’s fourth line with two minutes left in a 5-0 game is different from being on the ice with two minutes left, the other team’s goalie pulled and a one-goal lead. This is where Doughty’s value to the Kings truly manifests itself; not only did he lead the team in total minutes played but also in total power play minutes and total shorthanded minutes.
All of that ice time speaks to Doughty’s durability and his ability to play through nagging injuries. He played all 82 games for the fourth consecutive season, missing a total of just 16 games in his ten-year NHL career.
Drew Doughty: Statistics Don’t Say It All
Much of what makes Doughty so great can’t be measured in statistics. It comes from his ability to match up against the opposition’s top line night after night and still be a plus player. “His skating ability is probably close to the top, if not the very top … His agility is outstanding. His play with the puck and his ability to shut down pretty much everybody that he gets matched up on. He can do it all and that’s why he should win the Norris (Trophy),” Kings captain Anze Kopitar told Josh Cooper of NHL.com. These attributes allow him to be strong in his own zone and still be able to jump into the play and contribute at the offensive end.
One of Doughty’s best attributes is his tremendous feel for the game. Some call it Hockey IQ, others call it hockey smarts. No matter what you call it, Doughty has it in spades. It’s his ability to read the play, anticipate his opponent’s action and react quickly that allows for all these other attributes to manifest themselves into making Doughty the top NHL defenseman that he is.
The Ying and Yang of Doughty’s Competitiveness
Doughty’s greatness is personified in his extreme competitiveness and hating to lose. One example is from a Dec. 30 game against the Vancouver Canucks. Canucks forward Nikolay Goldobin beat Doughty to the slot with a great move, one of the rare times he has been beat one-on-one, and scored a goal to tie the game 2-2. Did Doughty hang his head and let that one play affect his play the rest of the game? Not at all. Instead, he went out and scored the game-winning goal in overtime, one of four game-winning goals on the season.
Granted, sometimes Doughty’s intensity and competitiveness get the best of him. On Mar. 3 against the Chicago Blackhawks, he took a hooking penalty with 11:28 to play in the third period and the Kings leading 3-1. He didn’t agree with the call and let the referee know as much which led to an additional penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, Doughty’s fourth unsportsmanlike penalty of the season, that was tacked onto the initial penalty.
Two minutes and sixteen seconds later the Blackhawks scored to make it 3-2. They would go on to score three more goals in a devasting 5-3 loss for the Kings. Maybe Chicago would have scored anyway given the momentum shift off of the initial power play, but if he held his cool, Doughty would have been on the ice to try and prevent it.
Ultimately, the best argument that can be made on Doughty’s behalf is how he is viewed by his peers. After playing the Kings on Mar. 24, Edmonton Oilers captain and reigning Hart Trophy winner Connor McDavid said: “In my mind, he’s probably the best defenseman in the league.” That was after McDavid scored two goals to help the Oilers beat the Kings 3-2. If that doesn’t speak volumes as to how deserving Doughty is for the Norris Trophy, I don’t know what does.