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Drew Doughty Is Not Only No Longer Elite - He's Terrible
The excuses just don't hold up - his struggles are nobody's fault but his own.
If the only hockey media you consume comes from mainstream sources, you’re probably under the impression that Drew Doughty remains one of the league’s best defenceman, if not the best. Your reaction to this headline might be “Are you kidding me? How could you call Drew Doughty terrible? Who the hell do you think you are?” 6.5% of NHL players polled by the NHLPA still believe that he is the best in the league, the fourth most of anybody. TSN projected him as the #1 right defenceman on their mock 2022 Team Canada Olympic roster and ranked him 39th among all players. SportingNews ranked him #2 before the season began.
He isn’t. Drew Doughty is not only no longer one of the league’s best defencemen. He’s terrible. There is no worse player in the league playing the kinds of minutes that he does.
Look, you say. The Kings are awful! Of course he’s not going to be contending for Norris trophies on one of the league’s worst teams! Who’s even heard of the guys he plays with - Sean Walker? Matt Roy? Joakim Ryan? No-names, the lot of them. You can’t blame him for having to carry the Kings’ garbage defence on his back. He plays huge minutes against top competition, he’s got Cup rings, are you really gonna say he’s bad?
Yeah, I am. What is the argument for him being an elite player that isn’t entirely based on reputation and a pile of excuses? Not only are his isolated results some of the league’s worst, but those excuses actually don’t add up either.
A Quick Explainer of Defensive Analytics for the Layman (Because Everyone Deserves to Laugh at the Kings' Misfortune)
(Skip this if you’re already stats-savvy)
Analysts argue that it is impossible to analyze defence using the eye test alone for a variety of reasons. For one thing, oftentimes the things that matter on defence are the things that don’t happen - a defender has his stick blocking a lane, forcing a forward outside; a close gap limits a puck carrier’s options. Most of our casual viewing eyes are drawn to things like body checks, shot blocks, steals, and puck battles in front of the net, but these don’t necessarily add up to “good defence.” What if a player throws checks and blocks shots so much because they’re always stuck in their own end? What if a player steals two pucks a game but is bad positionally?
The core object of defence, we’d argue, is to limit the quantity and quality of chances that your goalie has to face. All those little events and non-events (the poke checks, the battles, the blocked lanes, etc.) are just ways to try to make that happen. Fortunately, we now have access to statistics that not only measure how good a player is at achieving that goal, but isolate that impact from his teammates, opponents, and other context factors using fancy math.
Some of the stats, which will be taken from EvolvingHockey.com, include:
Corsi For and Against (CF/CA) - Contrary to popular belief, not that popular anymore. This tracks the number of shot attempts that a player/team generates and gives up when they’re on the ice. RAPM regressions use fancy math to isolate how a player impacts this.
Expected Goals (xGF/xGA) - Expected goal models (which have kind of supplanted Corsi) are based on the common sense idea that some shots are more dangerous than others. If a defenceman allows 10 shots from the point, that's easier for their goalie than if they allow 10 shots from the slot. This can be isolated as well.
Expected Wins Above Replacement (xGAR/xWAR) - This is a model based on a number of statistical inputs that estimates the number of wins a player provided to his team compared to what a “replacement level” (13th forward, 7th defenceman) player would have done - for example, how many wins does Evgeni Malkin personally contribute to his team compared to what Stefan Noesen would have? These numbers are very cool but a little controversial.
1. Drew Doughty’s Analytics Are Awful
There really is no sugarcoating it. Take a look for yourself:
All the stats above except for points are adjusted for linemates, competition, venue, zone starts, score, etc. Any contextual factor that could distort them has been accounted for. This is, laid bare, the defenceman that Drew Doughty is in 2020: abysmal offensively, poor defensively, and unproductive compared to the league's other defencemen. 93% of the defencemen in the NHL had a better offensive impact than he did at even strength. But hey, at least he's good on the powerplay!
It is of course true that Doughty does play big minutes against tough competition - in fact, only Thomas Chabot has a harder workload than him. Like I said, these stats are adjusted for that. But let's set that aside for a minute, for the sake of argument. If Doughty is an elite player, shouldn't he be outplaying other teams’ top competition? A top 5 defenceman really shouldn't be getting caved in night after night by the Coyotes’ and the Ducks' first lines, right? Would he be better if his workload wasn't as excessive? Maybe. But he's always played this role. And he’s never been bad like this.
2. The Kings’ Defence is Actually Pretty Good
The Los Angeles Kings are not competitive. Not by a long shot. But it’s not because of their defence. It is - almost singularly - because they cannot score a goal for the life of them. Despite a lack of name-brand talent (what is a Matt Roy?), the Kings ranked 11th in the league at preventing goals against at even strnegth. That’s not a fancy stat, it’s just actual real life plain ol’ goals. Even their penalty kill was decent.
The stats above paint a pretty clear picture of what this team is good at and what it isn't. What they don't do, contrary to what some would have you believe, is show a defence so utterly dysfunctional that a supposedly elite defenceman would see his stats destroyed by virtue of playing on it.
When you hear someone say that the Kings defence is bad, what they're actually saying is “I don't know anything about the Kings' defence.” Which is fair, I mean, they're a bad and kinda boring team that plays at like 10 PM for most hockey fans. Why would you? But their D is actually pretty good!
Using their isolated impact on generating expected goals for and preventing expected goals against (probably the best proxy for defenceman performance we have), you can see that of all the blueliners to play over 250 minutes for the Kings, five of them were above-average overall compared to the rest of the league. Doughty is not one of them.
This set of players might seem like Drew Doughty, a departed Alec Martinez, and a bunch of scrubs, but the stats show that it isn’t: the misfit toys are actually good! The reason that you haven’t heard of them is that they play for a crummy West coast team, two of them were undrafted, two of them were 7th rounders, and one was a 5th rounder (check out Mr. Blue-chip over here). So don’t go blaming them because a guy who makes more than twice as much as the rest of them combined is playing miserable, uninspired hockey.
3. The Microstats Don’t Cut It
The only statistical case for Doughty remaining elite is based on microstats, i.e. on-ice events manually tracked by private companies. It can be found in "Analyzing What Still Makes Drew Doughty an Elite NHL Defenceman", a Sportsnet.ca article written by Andrew Berkshire. In it, Berkshire presents Doughty’s percentile ranking in various stats tracked by the company SportLogiq, arguing that he’s above the 95th percentile in terms of not turning over the puck in his own end, that he doesn’t make mistakes with the puck, that he denies zone entries, and that he makes a lot of transition plays. These stats aren’t publicly available, but we’ll trust that they’re accurate.
What do these stats tell us? Doughty is still a very strong breakout passer who doesn’t turn the puck over and prevents opponents from entering the zone at a strong rate. That’s it. They do not tell us that Doughty is still elite overall, or even that he has a positive aggregate impact on his team - they tell us specific things about his skillset. The elephant in the room is why, despite all of these attributes, Doughty’s isolated impact on his team’s even strength offence and defence is so poor. If he’s still breaking the puck out well, what is he doing in the offensive zone that’s hurting his team? If he’s still good at denying zone entries, how does his team give up such an extreme number of excellent chances when he’s on the ice?
Berkshire tries to explain this divide, but the answer is unsatisfying.
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. 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.
This is unfair. As we’ve seen above, these guys aren’t the problem - whether or not you’ve heard of them. Actually discovering the answer would require diving into game tape and specifically watching what Doughty is (and maybe more importantly isn’t) doing. Maybe he’s lost a step and can’t join the offence as effectively anymore, maybe he’s playing lazily in his own end and providing forwards with too much space or allowing them to retrieve pucks. But we shouldn’t stretch ultra-specific microstats to their breaking point to cover up his massive faults.
So if Doughty is so bad, why haven't more people noticed? I think there are two reasons (leaving aside the whole good Canadian boy Cup champ thing).
Evaluating defencemen is tough to do without using analytics, especially when they decline. With forwards, most people will just see point totals go down and say “he's declined.” They’ll even do it with some offensive defenceman. But Doughty was never a guy whose points were the main attraction, so there's no clear way for them to tell that he's doing worse.
Doughty is on a team that's bad, so they can’t look at his plus/minus (the closest thing to a defensive stat most hockey fans can think of) and decide that he sucks.
After the past two seasons, it’s impossible to say what it would take for the hockey world at large to maybe start to criticize the awful play of one of the most expensive defenceman in the history of the league.
So I’ve made the case for why I think Drew Doughty is currently not only not elite but an absolute anchor on the Kings’ defence (not to mention payroll). The real question is: what the hell happened? In his companion piece to this article, hockey tactician and former Toronto Marlies assistant coach Jack Han addresses that question by breaking down game tape. His eye-test analysis suggests that Doughty is playing disengaged, lazy hockey, picking his moments to really try but otherwise not giving it anywhere near his all. In other words, Doughty is grumpy that his team isn’t good anymore, and he’s apparently determined to be part of the problem.
Does this mean that Doughty will never be good again? Not necessarily. It’s very possible that this is an effort problem, or maybe even an endurance problem, or most likely both. Maybe if he played all of his games against Matthew Tkachuk he would give a crap again. Some of the skills appear to still be there, especially on the powerplay and the breakout. But I’m sorry, if a player is hurting his team to the extent that Doughty is hurting the Kings - and getting paid $11 million to do it - I do not consider him elite anymore. I won’t give hypothetical “if he gave a damn” points. He’s getting paid to be a big-minute elite number one defenceman, and he’s a big-minute anchor. He’s terrible. No more excuses.