As part of the coverage of John Stevens ascending to the head coaching position in Los Angeles, there have been LAKI stories this week on systems play and how it could affect the ability to play with pace, working with Anze Kopitar and team centers, the timeline of when assistants could be hired, his relationships with players and FA/UFA discussion and how the team’s use of its data and “analytics” may evolve.
To wrap up the coverage, and in line with Stevens’ words on the importance of relationships with his players, there’s one particular King whose connection with Stevens is worth reflecting on.
That player is Drew Doughty, and based on a conversation I had with the All-World defenseman near the beginning of the 2015-16 season, it’s clear that his early relationships with Stevens, who joined Terry Murray’s staff prior to the 2010-11 season, needed a little bit of maintenance at times.
“He’s a really, really smart coach. He really knows his stuff,” Doughty said of Stevens in November, 2015. “Early on in my career, me and John kind of bumped heads a lot of the time and now it seems like we’re always on the same page and kind of know what to do. He just expects me to be a good leader, a good player every night, play hard, lead the right way and then obviously help Nabber as much as possible. [McNabb] is still a young guy in the league and he needs a little bit of help sometimes and I’m glad to do it.”
(Doughty was paired primarily with Brayden McNabb at the time of our conversation, but his work alongside Derek Forbort is still applicable in this context.)
Back to the topic at hand. It’s not surprising that a young player might’ve needed some work on the relationship with his new coach; Doughty was coming off a season in which he posted 16 goals and 59 points and was a Norris Trophy finalist in his 20-year-old season, and Stevens joined the coaching staff the ensuing summer.
But while Doughty was an offensive dynamo and posted numbers that are still career-highs across the board in 2009-10, he’s much more of a complete player in all facets of his game now than he was then. Two Stanley Cups and the organic maturation process of a player who will turn 28 midway through the upcoming season has helped smooth over any early disagreements, as has his quick understanding of his own responsibilities and how Stevens’ knowledge could enhance them.
“Drew, it’s come a long way. I think it’s normal,” Stevens said at his Monday press conference. “I think when I first got here I didn’t understand him and he didn’t understand me and we butted heads a little bit, but I think in the end there was a layer of trust between both of us that I appreciated what he does, and he had to trust that I had his best interests in mind. Drew’s a great competitor and I think I’ve learned to try to help him but appreciate all the good things he does, and I think our relationship’s been very good and I think that was something that happened early on in the process.”
“I think that’s actually a good thing that we were able to go through a little bit of resistance with each other and develop a really strong relationship of trust.”
It’s completely in line with Stevens’ work in helping to develop defensemen that have found success in many areas of the ice, whether that has been Alec Martinez, Jake Muzzin, Slava Voynov, Derek Forbort or others.
With Doughty, he obviously had a gifted skill set with which to work. Under Darryl Sutter, and likely too under Stevens, players have been and will be asked to maximize their ability, and while there have been ups and downs with particular players’ growth in doing so, Doughty’s career arc has mostly been linear to the point where he’s now considered to be among the greatest defensemen of his generation. That ability to move past any early hiccups with Doughty is a reflection of Stevens’ understanding of the importance of fostering strong relationships with his players.
“Well I mean, he was a Norris trophy candidate before I got here, so he had a lot of the game figured out and was playing at a really high level, and he had a relationship with somebody that was here before, so that process takes time,” Stevens said. “It was nothing for me to be concerned about – it’s just part of the process of getting to know your players.”