Analyzing what still makes Drew Doughty an elite NHL defenceman

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Recently the NHLPA released its annual player poll, which covered a variety of topics, and in an interview with media this week Los Angeles Kings defenceman Drew Doughty said he noticed how his peers viewed him.

I’m not sure what Doughty’s definition of high is, but he ranked fourth in the player poll with 6.54 per cent of the 520 NHLers surveyed saying they view him as the NHL’s top defenceman. For a 30-year-old whose team has played all of two short first round playoff series in the past six years, ranking fourth seems like his peers have a lot of respect for him, but Doughty clearly expected more.

While his peers have maintained lots of love for Doughty’s game, on the surface over the past couple of years it sure looks like he’s taken a step back, which would be entirely normal for a player his age. Many in the analytics community have been saying Doughty has been falling for several seasons now — but if he has fallen off, how bad has it been?

Like we did with Doughty’s peer in P.K. Subban, we can look back through five years of Doughty’s data to see if, where, and how much he has declined in recent years, and evaluate where his game is compared to the rest of the NHL’s defencemen.

Similar to Subban, Doughty has seen a dramatic decline in his offensive involvement over the past few years, with a big drop in 2016-17 that seemed like a one-off after he bounced back in 2017-18, only to fall below average at even strength the following year again. That has been reflected in his point production as well, despite still being generally strong on the power play. When someone’s point production falls off it’s common to see them start being viewed differently, but Doughty has pushed himself to contribute better defence at his own blue line to compensate for the lack of offence, and his biggest strength remains shockingly constant.

At his very best, Doughty was never a game changing offensive defenceman at even strength. It just hasn’t been part of his game at the same level as peers like Erik Karlsson and Subban, but what he does do better than everyone else is move the puck.

Doughty has been, and remains, the premier transition defenceman in the NHL when taking both the defensive and neutral zones into account. He accomplishes this through a combination of high volume of smart plays, and bewilderingly excellent success rates.

Over the past five years, this season is his lowest rank in overall defensive zone turnover rate, where he’s still better than 98.4 per cent of all other defencemen. Over the past five years combined no one is even close to being as consistent in this area. When things are adjusted for team structure, others move closer to Doughty, but he remains the safest defensive zone puck handler in the league, and there hasn’t been much movement there.

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Including all zones, Doughty’s success rate on all plays with and for the puck is also among the league’s elite — his lowest mark in this five-year window was still better than 95.6 per cent of all blueliners, back in 2017-18.

You can see there is some level of drop off from Doughty in volume of transition plays he completes, going from the 99th percentile three seasons ago to 86th percentile this season. That is a sign of decline, but it’s one of those times where we have to stress that it doesn’t mean he’s bad now, it just means there’s a pattern of trending down.

Doughty isn’t at his absolute peak anymore, but he remains one of, if not the best transition players from the back end in the game to this day. So, if Doughty’s main strength remains relatively untouched by age, what is driving the idea that he’s fallen off the cliff?

The answer there becomes clearer when we look at on-ice results.

Comparing Doughty to Subban, you can see that several years ago the two of them were bouncing around each other alternating superior years in relative shot attempt differential, but Subban took a big hit in 2017-18, coincidentally the last time he was nominated for the Norris Trophy.

The reason Subban’s numbers fell off that year had a lot to do with being paired with Alexei Emelin in tough high leverage minutes, something Emelin was not suited to, and had a history of dragging his partners’ numbers down. When separated from Emelin, Subban’s general shot control numbers have remained strong, even this season in New Jersey where he’s faced extremely tough competition and struggled visibly for much of the season.

Doughty, meanwhile, has taken a steep nosedive since the 2017-18 season in terms of the impact he has on teammates’ shot control, even though his transition play remains exemplary and his blue line defence is improving. What gives?

Part of the issue for Doughty is going to be similar to what Subban dealt with while paired with Emelin; and when you look at the who’s who list of defence partners Doughty has played with the past two seasons you’ll likely see some names you’ve never heard of.

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This season alone Doughty has spent significant time with Sean Walker, Ben Hutton, Joakim Ryan, Derek Forbort, and Alec Martinez, along with spot duty with Matt Roy, Kurtis MacDermid, Mikey Anderson, Tobias Bjornfot, and Kale Clague. A couple of those players are solid, but for the most part it’s very clear that Doughty has to drive the bus.

When Subban and Doughty were in their primes, they could carry players who were big drags on possession. Subban played big minutes with Hal Gill and Josh Gorges for years, he won a Norris while spending most of a season with Francis Bouillon, while Doughty carried rookie Brayden McNabb who he helped to mold into a strong player himself, among others.

At the age these two are at now, though, they need more support, and despite Doughty being very good at the things he was always very good at, it becomes more difficult to do it all himself as he gets older, especially as the Kings’ roster is much thinner than it was when they were a contender. If the Kings want to get back to playoff status in the Doughty and Kopitar era, they’re going to have to commit to giving Doughty a little bit more consistency and a little bit more support.

If he gets that, he’s far from done.

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