EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) — Drew Doughty began this season holding out for a $56 million contract from the Los Angeles Kings, demanding and getting an enormous sum for a kid with more potential than accomplishment.
Doughty then started the season with every dollar seemingly stacked on his shoulders, weighing him down.
The 22-year-old has shaken off that burden in the postseason, leading his favorite team since his Ontario boyhood into just its second trip to the Stanley Cup final. The Canadian Olympic gold medalist just keeps getting better, producing a two-point performance in the Western Conference finals clincher at Phoenix on Tuesday.
Although Doughty is also skilled at deflecting praise, he's thrilled to be the player everybody has always thought he could become.
"I think I'm back to that guy that I know I can be," Doughty said. "I'm loving everything about it, and I want to continue to be that guy. I think in order for us to win the Stanley Cup, I have to be that best defenseman on the ice every night, and I'm going to make sure I'm doing that."
Doughty has been the best defenseman on the NHL's best playoff team so far, scoring 10 points in 14 games — the Kings' other five defensemen have a combined 11 points — and averaging nearly 26 minutes of ice time. He's doing it all while playing against every opponent's top offensive players with his partner, veteran Rob Scuderi.
"You have to be well-rounded in all areas and not just a specialist," said Kings coach Darryl Sutter, a major factor in Doughty's leap forward. "You have to be able to see yourself in all those situations, and when he does that, he's pretty good."
Doughty's surge after two straight regular seasons of declining production has spurred the rest of the Kings, who try to keep Doughty's passion trained on opponents instead of officials or after-the-whistle scuffles. His rising maturity has impressed the veteran teammates who have watched Doughty change from a raw talent into a balanced, mature defenseman.
"I think he's had to do what most young players don't, and that's grow under the spotlight," said Kings captain Dustin Brown, Doughty's road roommate and self-appointed chaperone. "Most guys spend a few years in the minors and come up, and he's been in the spotlight ever since he's been here. He has handled it pretty well. Part of that's just the type of person he is, and part of it's just the type of guys we have in that room, collectively pushing him in the right direction.
"He's definitely one of those guys (who) acts like he's not going to listen to you, but he does. That goes a long way."
Doughty was the second overall pick in 2008, and the Kings immediately signed the 18-year-old. He made the NHL's all-rookie team in 2009 before becoming the second-youngest Norris Trophy finalist in NHL history a year later, scoring 59 points.
Doughty managed just 40 points last season, but still took a hard line in contract negotiation last summer, demanding to become one of the NHL's highest-paid defensemen. That position didn't sit well with some Kings fans, particularly when he skipped 13 days of training camp.
They made a deal, but Doughty scored just 36 points this season. He also had a minus-2 rating after being a combined plus-33 over the previous two seasons.