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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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On a glorious day fit for the Kings, the Stanley Cup parade crept through downtown Los Angeles last Thursday, black and silver confetti dusting the double-decker buses and flatbed trucks carrying players and their families to a rally at Staples Center. After a playoff spring in which disbelief was suspended more often than Lindsay Lohan's driver's license, hockey had settled into the familiar triumphal postscript: a trip to Las Vegas, ceremonial first pitches, and feel-good visits with Jay Leno and Jimmy Kimmel.

One TV show with no interest in the Kings or their hardware was HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher. The host told his Twitter followers not to congratulate him about the first championship in franchise history simply because he lives in L.A.: "No one here gives a s--- about a winter sport played by Russians/Canadians in June."

While Maher betrayed a tenuous grasp of the roster—captain Dustin Brown and goalie Jonathan Quick are Americans, while only one Russian, defenseman Slava Voynov, got ice time after the first round—his contrariness was not groundless. NBC4 displayed a Sacramento Kings logo during a report on the Western Conference finals, which would be like confusing defenseman Drew Doughty's hometown of London, Ont., with, you know, that city where players skate on the left side of the road or something. A Fox11 sports anchor referred to No. 1 center Anze Kopitar as Kopidor, while Doughty—merely the playoffs' pivotal figure—became Brad Doty. During the series Fox11 also turned Jonathan Quick into Jonathan Swift. In case this comes up again, Swift wrote A Modest Proposal, an 18th-century satire suggesting that impoverished Irish sell their children as food to rich gentlemen, while Quick merely ate the lunch of the New Jersey Devils.

The thousands who lined the parade route along Figueroa Street seemed like an impressive turnout until compared with the last two title turnouts, two million in Chicago in 2010 and the one million in Boston last year. L.A.'s celebration was actually restrained from the moment the Kings clinched the title on June 11 with a 6--1 home win in Game 6. Only six revelers were arrested that night. Six. If the LAPD had raided lockers at any elementary school that day, it probably could have had more collars. The television metrics were also understated. The per-game average of 3 million U.S. viewers made this the lowest-rated finals since 2007, which is unsurprising, considering the Kings' opponent. (The Devils are the NHL's version of the witness protection program, their players' ho-hum excellence routinely overlooked because they play in the shadow of New York and the Rangers.)

This was a matchup for those who like their hockey neat, no chaser, with much to savor beyond the notion of a No. 8 seed spreading hope to the middle class of professional sports everywhere, scintillating saves and tape-at-11 goals (albeit with the names mangled). The series revealed itself in delightful ways with displays of character not easily conveyed in 140 characters. The zipper of 35 stitches on the nose of defenseman Rob Scuderi stood as bumpy testament to the price of victory as he held his 4-year-old daughter, Kate, on the ice after Game 6. "Did you win?" she asked. Twice. "Yes," her father said, also twice. "We won."

If you missed the finals, you turned your back on one of the most accomplished goaltenders in history, New Jersey's 40-year-old Martin Brodeur. More tellingly, you missed the reemergence of hockey's future in Doughty, the man-child who plays with uncommon skill and infectious joy. Discussing a coast-to-coast Doughty goal in Game 2 that was as luscious as any Bobby Orr concoction, L.A. assistant general manager Ron Hextall says, "If you look at the subtle things he does with his hands and feet to create the room for that move, most people don't understand it." Hextall pauses. "Drew probably doesn't understand it either."

Quick, who finished with a .946 save percentage in the playoffs and a .947 mark in the finals, was a deserving playoff MVP. The 22-year-old Doughty would have been an even more deserving one.

In a finals series that pitted near doppelgängers—superb goaltending, astute coaching, heavy forechecking—the difference was Doughty, whom no one on the Devils remotely resembled. He helped neuter New Jersey's top line (Zach Parise had one goal and Ilya Kovalchuk an empty-netter) by negating its forecheck, almost inviting a hit and then making a late dish or swivel-hipping his way around it. As Devils defenseman Mark Fayne observed after Game 4, "Doughty's got patience. He sells plays without doing anything. A quick look off maybe, and he makes a play. Most guys you move at will make a play to get rid of the puck. He just stands there." Doughty had six points in the finals. He had a point in 12 playoff games and played 25 minutes or more in 15 of the Kings' 20. He also had 14 points in the last 13 matches, growing more formidable as the playoffs advanced. He would have been the thinking man's Conn Smythe winner, though the terms thinking and Doughty rarely cross paths. In the words of L.A.'s codirector of amateur scouting, Mike Futa, Doughty is "uncomplicated off the ice, Picasso on it."

"Before the Olympics [Team Canada associate director], Kevin Lowe asked me if that's the best Drew can play," says Mark Hardy, an assistant coach with the Ontario (Calif.) Reign of the ECHL, who was then coaching the Kings' defense. "Drew wasn't playing particularly well at the time, but I told Kevin that when the stage is the highest, Drew Doughty is at his best. And he turned out to be their best defenseman [in Vancouver 2010]. Drew doesn't have any fear because he doesn't overthink the game. He just plays it."

"Dewey has so much talent that he can just go out and play," says grinning L.A. winger Trevor Lewis, one of Doughty's closest friends on the team. "He's better when he doesn't think. So it's probably a good thing that he's not the sharpest tool in the shed."

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