EL SEGUNDO, CA — At around 2:15 PM on the afternoon of September 30, 2011, defenseman Drew Doughty emerged from the dressing room for his first training camp skate. That moment was the first publicly visible sign that the Los Angeles Kings had become whole once again.
Late Thursday night, the Kings announced that they had reached a verbal agreement with their top defenseman, who missed virtually all of training camp as a contract holdout.
In the end, Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi sweetened the pot by offering Doughty an average of $200,000 more per year above his reported original offer of $6.8 million per season, the same average annual value of center Anze Kopitar’s contract.
For their part, Doughty and agent Don Meehan reportedly budged on the length of the contract, so the deal ended up at $7 million per season for eight years.
“The cap is a delicate balance,” Kings Assistant General Manager Ron Hextall told LAKings.com (Kings executives were not available for comment on September 30). “Every year, there’s moving parts just to try and stay under it. But we’re really excited to have Drew under contract, and, obviously, Kopitar, long-term, along with the rest of our guys.”
“We’re excited about the timing,” added Hextall. “It could have, obviously, been a little bit better at the start of camp, but we’re excited to have our team whole again.”
The 21-year-old native of London, Ontario met with the media before hitting the ice for a skate with assistant coach John Stevens.
“It sucked being at home, and it sucked going through this process, but I’m just really thankful that I’m here, and I’m going to be a member of the LA Kings for eight years,” said Doughty. “[The waiting] sucked, it really did. I didn’t plan to be back home in London for that long. I wanted to be here the whole time. There was never a question about leaving the Kings, or anything like that. But we had to get done what we had to get done, and it’s done before the season. That’s the most important part.”
“I’ve had a lot of stress,” added Doughty. “The season’s approaching. I was counting down the days until the season started. At first, I didn’t want to miss camp, either. I was counting down the days until camp started, but I ended up having to miss that.”
“I’m not happy about going through all that, but it’s done. I’m just happy that I’m here, happy to be a member of the LA Kings. I want to apologize to all those who had to patiently wait for me to get here, but, now that I’m here, I’m fully committed to making this team better.”
Doughty also addressed some of the criticism aimed at him due to his holdout.
“It was never a question of me not wanting to be with the Kings, or trying to ruin the team, or anything like that,” he stressed. “I apologize [for not] being here on time. Maybe some people think I didn’t go about doing things the right way. It’s part of the business. That’s in the past. Now I just have to focus on this season, [getting] this team to the Finals and winning it.”
Doughty’s absence has been the big story hanging over the Kings’ 2011 training camp. But the players took it all in stride.
“Everyone knew it was a matter of time, and they finally figured it out, a deal that worked for both parties,” said right wing and team captain Dustin Brown. “It’s good to have him back. Going through training camp, that was probably the biggest story, unfortunately—him not being here. But we’ve got him back now, and it’s just a matter of getting ready to go.”
“From a player’s standpoint, guys aren’t coming to the rink and saying, ‘oh wow…we’re going to have to start the regular season without [Doughty],’” added Brown. “That’s not the mentality of the group of guys who are in here. I think it was more, ‘let’s get ready to go.’”
“It was a real non-concern for players. I’m sure, for the coaches, management, ownership—they were all worrying about it. But, as a group of players, we did a pretty good job—the situation was what it was. It was more about getting ourselves ready, because had he not signed, we were going to have to play without him. But now that he has signed, it’s a big plus.”
Kings blue line corps member Matt Greene shared a similar view.
“I think everyone was confident that [an agreement] was going to happen, it was just a matter of time,” said Greene. “It’s good that they could finally reach an agreement and get this going, because he’s a big part of our team. It’s going to be nice having him to start the year.”
“He’ll be in shape, he’ll be fine, ready to go,” added Greene. “Missing training camp—nobody’s going to hold that against him. It’s something that happens. Everybody has either been in that situation, or knows somebody who has, so it’s not a distraction. There’s nothing against him for not being here. That’s just the way it worked out. We’ll welcome him with open arms today.”
Management was also keeping tabs on the reaction in the dressing room.
“I thought the whole group did a good job of staying focused,” said Hextall. “The coaching staff did an outstanding job getting the players that we had [here] ready to play. I think the guys were really good about it, they understand the business part of the game. Again, the organization’s focus, as a whole, obviously, in the back room, we had some stuff going on. Overall, our focus was terrific.”
Newcomer Mike Richards is rather familiar with Doughty since the two were teammates on Canada’s Gold Medal-winning team in the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“He started as a sixth or seventh defenseman [for Team Canada], and just worked his way to the top,” Richards noted. “He’s a confident, skilled hockey player. When you have those two [attributes], you make for a dangerous player on the ice. He’s just got so much skill, and the confidence to go along with it. But, even though he’s got all that skill, he doesn’t put his team in difficult positions if something doesn’t go right.”
“He’s a good player, we’ll obviously welcome him to the team,” Richards added. “It’s nice to see that he’s taken that step, and will be here for awhile. He’ll help with our defense in a big way.”
Having signed a lengthy contract of his own, Richards shared his own perspectives.
“You’re more relieved when it’s done, knowing that you’re going to be an NHL player for the next X amount of years that you’ve signed for,” he explained. “You’re excited to get started.”
“For him, it’s more getting excited to get back to the team, where he’s wanted to be all along.” he elaborated. “It’s unfortunate that the business side sometimes gets in the way, but I think everyone’s excited to have him back.”
Aside from Doughty, head coach Terry Murray may be the happiest person of all about having his best defenseman back in the fold.
“Drew Doughty is back,” Murray beamed. “I’m going to give him a big hug when I see him. It’s ‘welcome back, and get going.’”
“I’m real happy for him, and I’m real happy for the organization that this got done,” Murray added. “Mr. Anschutz and Tim Leiweke, they obviously stepped up big time here with a very important player to our team, and I know Dean [Lombardi] and Hexy [Hextall] have been working very hard over the summer, and through the training camp, to get this finalized.”
“Now we get everything back to being about the LA Kings, and the team. We move on.”
Although the players were all saying the right things, Doughty’s situation had to be, at the very least, a bit of a distraction.
“No question,” said Murray. “It was in the front of my mind the whole training camp. He’s a very important player, a very good player. You miss him.”
“You know everybody’s working very hard towards getting it resolved, and that’s the most important thing that you can hope for, that there’s a lot of communication going on,” added Murray. “Now that it’s done, we’ll bring him along very quickly, and get him ready to play the first game of the season.”
“As a coach, you’re just hoping it happens, that he’s able to get back, and get some quality practice time with the team before the season starts.”
Doughty said that his strength and conditioning has improved over last season, and that he is already rarin’ to go.
“I’ve been skating back home pretty hard, so I think I can jump right into it,” said Doughty. “But whenever they want me to play, I’m available to play, and I want to get back in action as soon as I can.”
“I feel stronger, and I feel better conditioned as well,” added Doughty. “I’m a little bit slimmer, but, at the same time, I have a little more muscle, and my body fat is lower. I worked really hard in the gym, and I was on the ice as well. I feel good. I’m a little bit lighter than I usually am…about 203 [pounds], and I usually play at 210.”
Doughty is not expected to be in the lineup when the Kings face the Colorado Avalanche in the annual Frozen Fury pre-season game at the MGM Grand Garden Arena tonight in Las Vegas, but will skate with players not in tonight’s lineup. Going forward, Murray will put Doughty on a fast track towards getting into the lineup.
“It’s gas pedal right to the floor boards out there in practice,” Murray stressed. “You’re going to push him right through, and get the amount of work that you feel, as a coaching staff, a player needs in order to get him up to playing speed as quickly as possible.”
“[It will be the] ‘Lamborghini’ approach,” Murray added. “Now we can get a week or practice time before the season starts.”
With the big contract, Doughty now has to prove that he is worthy of it over the term of the deal, and, after heading in the other direction last season, he will need to make the mental adjustments necessary to improve.
“Last year was a little bit of a down year for Drew, when you look at the numbers and the performance from the year before,” said Hextall. “But I think, as a second year player, to be runner-up for the Norris Trophy, and to really raise [his] game to that level, I think, last year—there’s a human tendency to think that you’re going to be that player every year.”
“I think Drew probably learned the lesson that you’ve got to push through every year, you’ve got to push through every summer, you’ve got to work hard, and get yourself in the best shape possible, so there’s some good lessons there,” added Hextall. “In saying that, Drew was still a pretty darn good player for us last year. I think he’s one of the elite, young defensemen in the league, and we expect him to be one of the elite defensemen in the league for many years.”
Doughty acknowledged that he took a step backwards last season, and that he needs to be better.
“I just want to improve every year,” he said. “I’ve been with this team for a long time. I want to win many Stanley Cup Championships. That Norris Trophy would be amazing to win. I know a lot of people didn’t think my last season was great, but I know I’m going to be a lot better this season.”
Winners And Losers?
As the Doughty Saga wore on during the off-season and through training camp, the contract terms that were being negotiated leaked out, and everyone began taking sides.
In the end, Lombardi and the Kings sweetened the deal, offering an average of $200,000 per year over the life of the contract, as reported earlier.
But in order to get that payout, Doughty and Meehan had to accept what they reportedly did not want…a long-term deal, one that keeps him in the fold for four years beyond the age of 25, when he can become an unrestricted free agent (he will have played seven seasons in the league at that time).
Looking at the terms of the deal, it makes you think, ‘why didn’t Doughty and Meehan make that offer much earlier in the process?’
After all, even with the extra $200,000 per year above the annual average value of Kopitar’s contract, one would have to think that Lombardi would have jumped at such a proposal, and the whole squabble could have been avoided.
For his part, Doughty has moved on.
“I don’t know if I need to talk about [the negotiations, the process, or the specifics of the contract] anymore,” he said. “It’s in the past now. I’m just really focused and really happy about being here. [Everything about the contract] is in the past, and I’m happy to be a part of this organization for a long time, and just really excited to be here, and [to] be back.”
Brown noted that the ordeal had to be tough on Doughty.
“I think, for him, [reaching a deal] was sigh of relief,” said Brown. “I think what a lot of people forget is that he’s 21 years old, and [is] in a situation that not a lot of 21-year-olds have to deal with. Whatever your opinion of how it went down [might be], he definitely wanted to be here from day one, and what happens in negotiations—a lot of people don’t understand. He had to deal with it pretty much by himself, seeing how he wasn’t around the guys at all.”
But the guys were with him, anyway.
“I probably talked to him two or three times a week, either text or voice, so I was probably in contact with him since the beginning of June, just seeing how things were going, and talking to him about what was going on here, once training camp got started, and trying to give him different perspectives,” Brown explained. “When you’re in a negotiation like that, it’s very hard to step outside. Sometimes, you need someone just to bounce ideas off of. Sometimes, he asked for ideas and opinions, so I just tried to be there for him.”
Doughty said that he knew he had the support of his teammates.
“They know it’s part of the business, and they supported me the whole time,” he noted. “They made sure that I knew that if I ever needed someone to talk to, they were there for me.”
But…who won, and who lost?
Given that both parties got something they wanted, there were no clear winners or losers. However, the advantage goes to Lombardi and the Kings, who did not have to break the bank when they sweetened their previous offer. More importantly, Lombardi stood firm on requiring a long-term commitment from Doughty—being able to buy out a handful of Doughty’s unrestricted free agent years and locking him up until he is 29 years old is the most critical aspect of the deal.
“He’s a young man, a very gifted young man,” said Murray. “He’s blessed with a lot of skill, a lot of talent. He’s a critical part of our organization. We’re all very happy that he’s back on board with an extended contract, an eight-year deal.”
“That shows the commitment that Mr. Anschutz is making to this team, that he’d sign a young guy to [a contract of] that length,” added Murray. “It’s tremendous, on his part. Now, it’s our job, as a coaching staff, to get the team to say, ‘thank you,’ by being a good team, play well, and play the kind of game that our fans want to see.”
Before too long, Doughty is going to “celebrate” his new contract with his teammates…by treating them to a meal…or two.
“I’m sure he’ll be paying for the first team dinner whenever the guys get together,” said Murray.
“He’s buying more than lunch, that’s for sure,” said Brown.
“That’s a definite,” said Doughty. “I know the boys won’t let that one slide. I think I [owe] it to them to take them to more than one dinner.”
In Other News…
On September 30, the Kings signed veteran right wing Trent Hunter to a one-year, $600,000, one-way contract.
Hunter, 31, was in the Kings’ training camp on a professional tryout contract. The 6-3, 210-pound native of Red Deer, Alberta has scored 99 goals and has added 130 assists for 229 points with 201 penalty minutes in 459 career NHL regular season games with the New York Islanders.
Hunter has twice reached the twenty-goal plateau. His best season was in 2003-04, when he scored 25 goals and tallied 26 assists for 51 points in 77 regular season games.
Additional training camp roster cuts are expected to be announced on October 1.
Raw audio interviews
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)
Matt Greene (1:43)
Mike Richards (2:49)
Dustin Brown (5:11)
Terry Murray (8:09)
Drew Doughty (5:37)
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