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PICASSO OF THE BLUE LINE
MICHAEL FARBER
June 25, 2012
In a showdown for purists only, Drew Doughty led L.A. to the title and emerged as the game's best defenseman. But next season he may not get to play
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June 25, 2012

Picasso Of The Blue Line

In a showdown for purists only, Drew Doughty led L.A. to the title and emerged as the game's best defenseman. But next season he may not get to play

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In honor of Doughty's nickname, the Kings collect what Brown has labeled Dewey-isms, statements or questions that strike them as so preposterous they wonder if Doughty is being serious or enjoying his own cosmic joke. Example: He asked Quick what island lay below as the charter banked over Catalina minutes after takeoff. "Hawaii," the goalie replied. Doughty seemed to buy it. Momentarily.

"There was this time we're watching Animal Planet, and he decides he wants to own a lion," says Brown, his road roommate. "I kinda convinced him that it wasn't a good idea. But he was impressed that the lion sleeps 20 or 22 hours a day. He said, 'Imagine if we slept 20 hours a day and woke up and didn't get a good night's sleep and wanted to go back to bed.' That's a Dewey-ism."

Los Angeles missed Doughty last fall as surely as he missed the on-ice timing and conditioning only training camps can provide. He was involved in an adversarial contract negotiation, one that left scars that even $56 million over eight years might not fully heal. Doughty, who has a thick torso and great hockey haunches, was stumbling under the weight of money rather than the extra 10 pounds or so he has been carrying since juniors, feeling pressure to justify a deal that made him one of the league's highest-paid defensemen. He missed five games with a shoulder injury at the start of the season, and was -5 with just eight points through his first 25 games.

But by early 2012, after the respected but monochromatic Terry Murray was replaced behind the bench with Darryl Sutter, whose conspicuous passion was more in tune with Doughty's instinctive approach, the defenseman began to resemble his precocious Olympic self. Hip checks were delivered. Spin-o-ramas were spun. Swashes were buckled. He found a hint of his smile, even if it was not as astonished as the one he would flash on the ice when he skated with the Stanley Cup.

Within 28 months Doughty has won a gold medal and a Stanley Cup. Among the best postexpansion defensemen—a list that comprises Orr, Denis Potvin, Larry Robinson, Raymond Bourque, Paul Coffey, Chris Chelios, Al MacInnis, Scott Stevens, Brian Leetch, Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer, Zdeno Chara and Nicklas Lidstrom—only Orr (22 and two months, four NHL seasons) and Niedermayer (21 and 10 months, three NHL seasons) were critical pieces of a Cup-winning blue line at a younger age.

"I once said to Drew, 'I hear you don't like to practice much,'" Hextall says. "He said, 'That's right. I wish I could play a game every day.' He's like a 14-year-old kid. He's a hockey player. He just wants to play."

Two hours before Kopitar and the Devils' Travis Zajac took the opening draw of Game 1, a ceremonial face-off occurred in a hallway of the Prudential Center in Newark. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and players' association executive director Donald Fehr shook hands, then chatted about the benefits of coffee, the skating exploits of Bettman's five-year-old grandson and the unpredictability of the finals. Fehr said he had no idea what might happen. "That," Bettman responded, "is the fun part."

Now comes the part that is no fun at all. During the next three months, until the collective bargaining agreement expires on Sept. 15, Bettman, Fehr and their respective negotiating committees will engage not in small talk but in big talk.

There have been two recent lockouts in North American leagues: the NFL, whose 136-day labor dispute last year turned out to be like teachers striking in July, and the NBA, which cost each team 16 games in 2011--12. When the NHL last locked out its players, the '04--05 season was lost. From that rubble emerged NHL 2.0, which included rule changes designed to increase scoring and a salary-cap system. The efficacy of both is dubious. Seven years after the rules were tweaked, the 5.3 goals-per-game average has slid back to just above '03--04 levels (5.1). In the interim league revenues have jumped from $2 billion to $3.3 billion; the '12--13 salary cap will be roughly $70.3 million. (The initial postlockout ceiling was $39 million.) But some franchises, including the Devils, have foundered financially. Currently the split of hockey-related revenues, 57% to 43%, favors the players, who, under one of Fehr's predecessors, Bob Goodenow, accepted a 24% salary rollback in the last deal.

"Players understand what happened last time," Fehr said. "Nobody you represent ... starts with the proposition that that's what I'd like to do—I'd like to negotiate a worse deal than what I have."

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