Drew Doughty’s quiet climb back to stardom

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What happened to Drew Doughty?

For a hearty chunk of the 2011-12 season, it was an unavoidable question that followed the Los Angeles Kings defenseman. After a protracted contract negotiation that essentially robbed him of training camp, Doughty sputtered. In his first 19 games (through October and November), Doughty managed just two goals and seven points. Worse yet, he just didn’t seem to carry that “dynamic” air that forced the Kings to hand him an eight-year, $56 million deal before he turned 22.

A different kind of Phaneuf’d

Considering his (relatively) modest 40-point contract year last season, it was tough to shake the feeling that he was going down Dion Phaneuf’s path. While Phaneuf isn’t a “bust” by any means, most would admit that he’s fallen well short of the next Chris Pronger/Scott Stevens-type hype he initially generated. To some degree, it seemed like Doughty was regressing in a similar fashion.

The playoffs’ best blueliner

Maybe Darryl Sutter steered Doughty back in the right direction or everything simply began falling into place. Whatever the case may be, if the NHL handed out a “Norris Trophy” in the playoffs, Doughty would be a no-brainer (all apologies to Bryce Salvador and perhaps Dan Girardi). Doughty is tied with Salvador for second in playoff scoring among defensemen with 11 points (one behind Girardi) but he’s done so in 15 games compared to 19 for Salvador and 20 for Girardi. Doughty is averaging 26+ minutes per game as he gets surprisingly little credit for the Kings’ stingy ways.

While plus/minus is a faulty stat, it’s worth noting that Doughty is a +12 and is another bullet point in the argument that Doughty is just as – or at least almost – as big a reason for the Kings’ dominance as headline-hogging forwards Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar.

Slipping under the radar

Doughty’s brilliant turnaround has been overshadowed by a few factors. I’d guess that his two-season mini-slump dropped him a bit lower on peoples’ radars, for one. Also, with Brown/Kopitar and Jonathan Quick producing more highlight-friendly banter, Doughty’s dangerous point shots, playmaking savvy and underrated work in his own zone gets knocked off the marquee.

It’s also true that there isn’t the falling-off-cliff drop between Doughty and other Kings defensemen. Willie Mitchell is the only guy who approaches his time on ice totals, yet the defense corps is well-stocked with defense-first (Mitchell, Rob Scuderi and Matt Greene) guys and rising offensive blueliners (Slava Voynov and Alec Martinez). The fall from Doughty to, say, Voynov isn’t as severe as Zdeno Chara to (pick an unfortunate Bruins defenseman for comparison, really) because the team is so well-balanced. Everyone seems slotted in the Kings’ system well enough that it isn’t quite as obvious how important Doughty has been.

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Doughty’s rebound hasn’t been instantaneous, yet it feels necessary to highlight his work admit all the praise for the Kings’ other stars. It seems clear that we can truly call Doughty an “elite” defenseman again, which is great news for GM Dean Lombardi and a discouraging development for the rest of the NHL.

(And we might just have to celebrate that fact by handing him the Conn Smythe Trophy by the time this is all over.)

Inconsistency is the only consistent thing about the Canadiens

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The 2017-18 edition of the Montreal Canadiens has been underwhelming at best. The only thing that’s been consistent about them is their lack of consistency.

On some nights, they look like a team that should have no problem making the playoffs. Other times, they look like a squad that should be picking in the top five of next summer’s NHL Entry Draft.

Through 31 games, they own a 13-14-4 record, but how they got there is the most interesting part.

Let’s forget the fact that five of those wins have come against the Sabres (three times) and Red Wings (twice). Hey, in the NHL, a win is a win. But the Canadiens have rarely not been on some kind of positive or negative streak this season.

After opening the season with an overtime win in Buffalo, Montreal went on to lose seven games in a row. They ended that skid at home against Florida, followed that up with a loss to the Los Angeles Kings and then went on to win five of their next contests.

That hot run came to an end with a 3-0 loss at home to the Minnesota Wild. In fairness to the Canadiens, they didn’t have Carey Price, Shea Weber and Jonathan Drouin in that game. But after beating Buffalo in their next game, they went on to lose five in a row to Columbus, Arizona, Toronto (they were obliterated 6-0 in that one), Dallas, and Nashville before snapping the skid against (you guessed it) the Sabres.

The game against Buffalo was the night Carey Price returned to the lineup. Price’s return sparked the Canadiens and they went on to win their next four games over Columbus, Ottawa and they beat Detroit twice, including a 10-1 drubbing at the Bell Centre.

After the blowout win over the Wings, a lot of people thought they had turned the corner. Instead, they followed up the win over Detroit with home losses to St. Louis, Calgary and Edmonton. Saturday’s loss to the Oilers was beyond embarrassing, as they were totally dominated in front of their fans.

“Well, if I knew, I certainly would’ve done something about (the Canadiens’ streaky play),” head coach Claude Julien said after the loss to the Oilers. “It is frustrating. We had a good stretch there, but this week has been a tough week for us. At the end of the day, you have to be better than you were tonight.”

There’s a number of reasons for Montreal’s lack of consistency. They’ve dealt with injuries to key players like Drouin, Price, Weber, David Schlemko and Artturi Lehkonen, but every team goes through that.

Their goaltending was brutal early on, and that certainly didn’t help during their tough start to the year. Also, the fact that 5-on-5 scoring doesn’t come easy to them is another reason why they don’t produce with any regularity. They’re also lacking some mobility on defense, which isn’t exactly ideal for today’s NHL.

And, of course, the fact that their two streakiest scorers have been “off” more than they’ve been “on” has really hurt them. Both Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk haven’t scored nearly enough. Pacioretty has eight goals in 31 games, while Galchenyuk has seven goals in 31 contests. Both have scored 30-plus goals in recent reasons.

The one thing going for the Canadiens is that the third spot in the Atlantic Division is up for grabs. Yes, the Bruins currently have four games in hand on Montreal and a two-point lead in the standings, but those old rivals will be going head-to-head three times in just over a week during the month of January.

As ugly as the season has been at times, the Habs still in it.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

NHL ON NBCSN: Lightning, Blues square off in battle of NHL’s best

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues on Wednesday night, as the St. Louis Blues host the Tampa Bay Lightning at 8 p.m. ET. You can stream the game by clicking here.

The Lightning and Blue have consistently been two of the best teams in the NHL since opening night.

A healthy Tampa side has scored at will with a league-best 110 goals through 29 games and the Blues have been powered by Vladimir Tarasenko, Brayden Schenn and the now-injured Jordan Schwartz. Both teams have the fire power, but they also have played some very stingy defense, thanks to goaltenders Andrei Vasilevskiy and Jake Allen.

The Blues enter Tuesday night’s game banged up and missing Schwartz and Alex Pietrangelo, who was placed on injured reserve with a lower-body injury, so depth will be tested. Schenn’s production may also be affected as Schwartz has assisted on half of his 16 goals. And as Jeremy Rutherford of The Athletic pointed out this morning, St. Louis averaged 3 goals per game with Schwartz and 2.36 goals when he wasn’t in the lineup.

[WATCH LIGHTNING-BLUES LIVE ON NBCSN]

Tampa hits the road following an undefeated four-game homestand. Their last road trip away from Amalie Arena ended with a 1-3-0 record and only seven total goals scored. Lightning head coach Jon Cooper won’t have last change to get his preferred matchups on the ice, so will he find himself splitting up Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos at times to spread out the offensive threat?

“We’ve done what we had to at home,” Cooper said via the Tampa Bay Times. “Now we have to do it on the road, and it’s much tougher with all the travel we have to do, especially where we are here. So, we have to learn from what we did on the road before, what we have to do to prepare, but this is a good way to jump-start that.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Blue Jackets’ Cam Atkinson hits ‘reset button’ after healthy scratch

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The reset button has been hit and Cam Atkinson will return to the Columbus Blue Jackets’ lineup Tuesday night against the Edmonton Oilers.

Atkinson, who has six goals and nine points in 25 games this season, was made a healthy scratch on Saturday, three weeks after signing a seven-year, $40.25 million extension. John Tortorella’s decision to sit the forward who scored 35 goals last season wasn’t a hard one for the head coach, mainly because the player forced the issue.

“This isn’t to kick a player,” Tortorella said on Monday. “Cam Atkinson is a very important player, and especially for this coach. He’s in every situation, and that’s what I think of him as a player.”

It wasn’t an easy past couple of days for Atkinson. An embarrassing scratch not long after inking a big extension wasn’t an ideal way to show off his worth to the franchise. But on Sunday he received a text from Martin St. Louis, an off-season Connecticut golf buddy and someone who knows pretty well how Tortorella operates. For more than a half hour the former Tampa Bay Lightning star reminded the 28-year-old that he’s a good player and that the franchise has an incredible amount of confidence in him, as displayed by the contract they just handed him.

[Blue Jackets bet big on Cam Atkinson]

Since Saturday’s scratch, Atkinson had stayed on the ice after skates working on his shot and getting extra touches with the puck to try and restore his confidence. There was time spent watching video, too. And just as important, there was plenty of communication with Tortorella.

“It’s one of those things where once you go down that dark alley, one thing leads to another and it’s hard to get out of it,” Atkinson said. “It’s not so much pointing the fingers, but sometimes you tend to blame your teammates or linemates and that’s something you can’t do. It’s something I’ve tried not to do… Being a healthy scratch was probably the best thing for me.”

There’s more than one Blue Jackets player struggling at the moment, which Tortorella admits is a failure on his part to find a way to get them going again. To the head coach, scratching a player isn’t a form of punishment, it’s a way to help.

Atkinson has hit the 20-goal mark in each of the last four seasons, so it’s not like he’s a lost cause or being crushed under the weight of his extension. Now, after a night in the press box, he knows he needs to respond.

“Obviously, you never want to be a healthy scratch, but it gives you a chance to reassess and hit the reset button, realize where you are at that point in time in the season and what you need to do to get better,” Atkinson said.

“It’s a wake-up call. I take full responsibility. I know I need to be way better, and I will be.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Cooper’s reinvention; Pietrangelo on IR

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• How Jon Cooper helped reinvent himself and bring the Tampa Bay Lightning back to elite status. [Tampa Bay Times]

• Days after losing Jaden Schwartz for six weeks, the St. Louis Blues placed Alex Pietrangelo on injured reserved with a lower-body injury. The good news is that he’s expected back by early next week. [Blues]

• Six skaters on Russia’s Sochi Olympic women’s hockey team — including its captain and leading points scorer — were banned from the Olympics for life by the IOC. [NBC Olympics]

Drew Doughty on the Los Angeles Kings doubters: “Yeah, you know, obviously, people are still going to doubt us. There’s always going to be people who don’t believe in the success we’re having, but we’re not too worried about those other people.” [LA Daily Times]

• The New York Islanders unveiled their plans to develop land by Belmont Park race track, which includes an 18,000-seat arena. Bidding against MLS side NYCFC, it’s unknown when the winner will be announced. [Islanders Insight]

• How the returns of Ryan Getzlaf and Jakob Silfverberg will affect the rest of the Anaheim Ducks’ lineup. [OC Register]

• Don’t trade Erik Karlsson. No, really. Just don’t do it. [Silver Seven Sens]

• Canada’s World Junior entry got a big boost on Monday when the Montreal Canadiens announced they will be loaning the defenseman to the national team. [Canadiens]

• What to make of these Columbus Blue Jackets? [The Cannon]

• The New Jersey Devils have made the most out of having some very hard practices. [NJ.com]

• So you wanna rebuild the Chicago Blackhawks? Well, about that… [Second City Hockey]

• It’s not been the greatest season in Philadelphia, but Sean Couturier is certainly shining. [TSN]

• What do the Dallas Stars need to do to find more success on the road? [Defending Big D]

• Are smelling salts actually dangerous for players? [The Star]

• Would a transatlantic hockey league be a successful one? [British Ice Hockey]

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.