Doughty at heart of Kings’ challenging off-season decisions

Brayden McNabb scored the only goal of the game and Marc-Andre Fleury made 31 saves for the shutout as the Vegas Golden Knights beat the Los Angeles Kings 1-0 to sweep the series.

LOS ANGELES – Big, heavy hockey is dead. The Vegas Golden Knights killed it Tuesday when they swept the once-mighty Los Angeles Kings out of the Stanley Cup playoffs in four games.

The San Jose Sharks will shovel more dirt on the carcass when they eliminate the heavy Anaheim Ducks, possibly as early as Wednesday night.

Actually, heavy hockey has been dying for a while – almost since the big, bruising Kings won their second of two Stanley Cups in 2014 and made size a big thing.

The Pittsburgh Penguins won the last two National Hockey League titles playing a fast, puck-movement game that undermines physical, forechecking teams with quick puck retrievals and breakouts. They defend with speed not size.

Let’s be clear: size still matters. It just doesn’t matter as much as mobility. Grit, toughness, fortitude – all these elements are still necessary to win a Stanley Cup. But nothing works in the NHL these days if you can’t move your feet and the puck.

"I just think you see where the teams have gone," Vegas defenceman Nate Schmidt said of the need for speed. "You kind of have to be that way if you’re going to be big. St. Louis has gotten a little smaller, a little quicker. Winnipeg has gotten away from it; all their big guys can skate. I just think that’s the way the game is going to continue to go. You can’t catch anybody if you’re chasing around all night.

"When I came in (to the NHL in 2014), I remember people saying how much of an advantage my speed brings to the game. Now I feel like I’m just another guy on the ice. You have to have that element on your team in this day and age."

Or as five-foot-nine Golden Knights forward Jonathan Marchessault said: "I would rather be a fast team than a heavy team in 2018. If you look at the Stanley Cup champion the last two years, they’re definitely built on speed. You look at the L.A. Kings, they’ve been successful for many years. (But) they were definitely a different type of team."

In this series, the Kings were the bigger, slower one.

To be fair, this wasn’t a 4-0 series. Vegas scored only seven goals and allowed three, winning each game by one.

The Kings were the slightly better team in Games 3 and 4 but couldn’t get enough pucks past Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

But Los Angeles, with a pile of big, heavy forwards, is still built for a half-court game. The Kings weren’t an especially fast team even when they were winning those Cups in 2012 and ’14, but they were dominant physically and battered opponents on the forecheck, using their size up front to lean on teams in the offensive zone and force turnovers.

But teams like the Penguins and Knights, the Nashville Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning and others, skate so well and move the puck so quickly and efficiently that it’s difficult to trap them in their zone.

Kings captain Anze Kopitar had a Hart Trophy-worthy regular season, but against the Knights was no better than, say, William Karlsson. Physical warrior Dustin Brown may have been the best L.A. forward, but the big trio of Jeff Carter, Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli didn’t register a point.

Since their last Stanley Cup, the Kings are 1-8 in playoff games and have failed to make the tournament in two out of four seasons. Their expensive roster is aging and, compared to the best teams in the Western Conference, their top players are getting slower by the year.

It’s hard to imagine general manager Rob Blake maintaining this same core of players when the game has changed so dramatically since they were last successful.

But any transformation in Los Angeles is greatly complicated by a payroll that has many of these players locked into long-term deals.

Kopitar, 30, is due another $60 million over the next six years. Thirty-three-year-olds Brown and Carter have four more seasons at $5.9 and $5.3 million, respectively. Defenceman Dion Phaneuf, 33, is owed three years at $7 million.

Superstar defenceman Drew Doughty, however, is an unrestricted free agent after next season, when he will be 29.

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Pointless in his three games against Vegas, Doughty got a lot of attention the last 10 days for something he said back in December when he promised after a loss to the Knights that there’s no way the Kings would finish behind them in the standings. They did, and were second-best again in the playoffs.

But what people will repeatedly bring up between now and July 1, 2019 is what Doughty told The Athletic in November. He said he was already thinking about his next contract and figured he and Ottawa Senator Erik Karlsson "deserve quite a bit more" than the $9 million per year Nashville Predator P.K. Subban makes as the NHL’s top-paid defenceman.

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If you’re the Kings and in transition, are you going to pay Doughty, say, $100 million for eight more seasons? Or are you going to speed the transformation of your roster by getting a bundle of assets in return for the best defenceman in the game?

Doughty is a dynamic, world-class player. He is not the problem in Los Angeles. But there don’t appear to be many solutions available to Blake.

In his final game this season for Ottawa – a year before he becomes a UFA – Karlsson quietly collected a puck to keep. You know, in case the Senators trade him this summer to address their own myriad of problems.

Doughty couldn’t get the game puck here Tuesday. The winning team, the better, faster team, collected it and took it home to Las Vegas.

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