More Than Just Work Ethic Holding Drew Doughty Back

Drew Doughty is skilled, strong, and powerful. His assets are so many, he was able to survive on them alone for much of his pre-NHL hockey career, claiming to have never even worked out in a gym before his last season in junior.

But despite his skill level, Drew Doughty is currently struggling in some aspects of the game. And that is because, to be an elite NHL defenseman, you need more than just raw physical ability. You need more than work ethic, even, a common complaint made against Doughty. You need to also be able to see the ice well and make good reads.

The best defensive defencemen are always in the right position. Many of them don’t have the natural physical ability that Drew Doughty has, but they have the mental skill, the understanding of the game. They excel at the fundamentals.

Likewise, offensively, on the power-play, physical skill is just a small part of the larger equation. Sure, speed and stickhandling will sometimes aid you in gaining the offensive zone cleanly, and a 105 MPH slap-shot will cause big problems for opposing goaltenders. But Doughty doesn’t have Shea Weber’s shot. Most players don’t. And other than certain circumstances where a defenseman’s elite physical abilities regularly have a huge impact on the power-play, being a good power-play quarterback is much more about vision, decision-making, and smarts.

If you want proof, just compare Doughty to Chris Pronger. At 37 years old, Pronger skates like molasses, and even his vaunted shot does not seem to have the same crunch it used to. It’s safe to say at this point in his career, he is not half as offensively gifted as Drew Doughty. He certainly doesn’t have the speed to rush the puck into the zone himself like Doughty does. Yet, he is the far better power-play quarterback, with 8 power-play points so far this season to Doughty’s 5 (not that I rely on these stats for my analysis). This is all down to hockey sense, vision, and poise (and passing, but there Doughty excels as well). Like a good NFL quarterback, Pronger knows how to read the defense. He knows where to send the puck and when, what simple pass to make to create a numbers mismatch, to put the defense in a dangerous position. He doesn’t move half as much as Doughty does, or with half the pace, but every move he does make is better calculated and choreographed. He maximizes his effort. He does a lot by doing a little.

Doughty, it seems, has come to master the opposite approach. Whether he has the puck or doesn’t, whether his team is on the attack or defending, it seems that Doughty’s physical talents are being let down by his hockey intelligence and poor fundamentals.

For instance, it has become a regular occurrence to see Doughty easily beaten on the rush 1-on-1, in this the age where (almost) no one gets beat one-on-one.

There was the terrible decision to be needlessly over-aggressive against Logan Couture last postseason. Doughty ventured all the way out to the boards to attempt a hip check against him, missed completely, and Logan Couture had an easy goal. Doughty has had made many similar mistakes since then, making it obvious that for all his elite talent, he still hasn’t learned something as simple as defending forwards on the rush. Doughty often makes needless challenges and crossovers that take him out of position, and create an opening for the forward to beat him.

He can be in perfect position and still look uneasy. He seems to panic. This is likely because his back-skating is nowhere near as good as his forward-skating, and he knows it. He has no confidence in his ability to stick with his man while skating backwards, so he rushes at his man instead, abandoning good position and creating high-risk scenarios for his team.

This is a huge issue in Doughty’s game overlooked by most. As a player considered one of the best and most skilled at his position in the world, it is odd that he has such a big weakness, which is exactly what this is. I have rarely seen any NHL defenseman so uncomfortable defending off the rush while going backwards, let alone one of Doughty’s pedigree. One-dimensional third-pairing defencemen without even 1/10 the talent Doughty has are more comfortable. I’ve already said it, it’s just very, very odd. No other way to put it.

In addition to his issues defensively, Doughty often struggles to funnel his talent in a positive fashion on offense, particularly on the power-play. This is in stark contrast to someone like Chris Pronger who maximizes everything he has. It’s not even that Doughty is making any one blatant mistake over and over, he’s just not making the right plays. He doesn’t even seem to know what they are. There are subtleties to running a power-play. Good quarterbacks know where to move the puck, and at what time, to open everything up. There is a timing to it, and an understanding in your head of how everything moves, and where to either shoot, skate, or pass the puck to exploit that at just the right time. This is what separates the great players on the power-play from the lesser ones. Nicklas Lidstrom has “this.” Chris Pronger does it, albeit with less creativity than Lidstrom. Drew Doughty’s teammate Mike Richards does it from the forward position; he always finds ways to make more space when their isn’t any; both for himself and his teammates.

This is what Drew Doughty is missing now, and Kings fans have to be concerned. There was another defencemen with great physical talent recently picked very high in the NHL draft, Erik Johnson, who the St Louis Blues traded last year for precisely this reason; they believed he couldn’t read the game well enough, and that no matter his physical talent, his hockey sense would always hold him back. The difference is, Erik Johnson is making 2.6M this year, and Drew Doughty is set to make 7M per year for the next nine.

If Doughty is to start playing like one of the top 3 defencemen in the league, he either has to improve his physical talent even further, to the point where he is so physically dominant his shortcomings in hockey sense and fundamentals don’t hold him back anymore, or he has to improve those aspects of his game (meaning his vision, hockey sense, reads, and fundamentals). For the first to happen, well, it already sort of did, in 2009-2010. He was one of the top 3 defencemen in 2009-2010, the year he was nominated for the Norris Trophy. But since then, his level of physical skill has declined slightly, his speed in particular, and this has made his weaknesses more apparent.

If Doughty wants to live up to his contract, he needs to hit the weight room or the video room, preferably both. He has the potential to be well worth 7M per season, he just doesn’t seem all that interested in putting in the work necessary to realize that potential. The best players are often the hardest working ones, and that isn’t by accident. Right now Drew Doughty is without any doubt not one of the league’s hardest working players. How long can he keep that up and still remain among the best? That’s a question Kings fans hope to never know the answer to, but only Doughty gets to decide that.

The success of the Kings is largely tied to Drew Doughty. He let them down last postseason in five of the six games against the San Jose Sharks, and so far this season he has not improved. If the high expectations of Kings GM Dean Lombardi and his boss Tim Leiweke are to be realized any time in the near future, that has to change.

Written by Shark Circle

For further evidence of what I’ve described about Doughty, at least defensive, I’ve posted the best I could find in terms of videos, and described the problems(s).

In the video below, Doughty is very tentative defending against a struggling Ovechkin. He first shows his poor backwards mobility and positioning by creating a poor gap, leaving Ovechkin far too much space to go wherever he wants. Then, because Doughty’s backskating is not precise enough, his stick naturally falls into a bad defensive position. In an attempt to rectify this at the last moment, Doughty is forced to swing his stick to his right awkwardly, which leaves Ovechkin space along the ice to release his wristshot between Doughty’s body and his stick (which is poke-checking out to the left, outside of *Ovechkin’s release point, when it should be in front of Doughty). Essentially, Doughty failed to keep Ovechkin to the outside with his bad gap, and then failed to disrupt the shot with bad stick positioning.

The next video is pretty self-explanatory. Logan Couture poses little threat coming up the ice as there is no odd-man attack, it is a 2-on-2 with two Kings backcheckers coming to help out. Doughty needs only to contain Couture, stay in front of him, and keep him to the outside. But, and I talked about this, because Doughty is so uncomfortable in his backward mobility, he tried to find another way to defend Couture when the play didn’t dictate and it wasn’t a good play. He went out to try and hip-check Couture, completely missed, and the rest is history.

I can’t find videos for the other plays I remember as some of them did not end up in goals.