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Auditing the Top 25 under 25 list

9/24/2013

Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi was finished explaining why his defenseman, Drew Doughty, is better than any of the other young defensemen on Neil Greenberg's annual list of the Top 25 players under 25.

Doughty is ranked No. 8 on the list this season, with four defensemen ahead of him: Erik Karlsson, P.K. Subban, Alex Pietrangelo and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Lombardi made a strong case for Doughty, which we'll get to in a second, and then wondered how the list was compiled.

When he found out it was determined by statistical analysis and not just a subjective Top 25, his interest perked up.

"That's good. That's interesting," he said during a chat on Monday evening. "It's the classic case between ... what I can see and what I can calculate."

Lombardi has an open mind when it comes to advanced statistics in hockey. In fact, he's good friends with a few baseball executives who are known for embracing stats. In his estimation, there is one advanced stat in hockey that has a strong correlation to success on the ice, but he's not going to divulge his secret.

"I'm not going to tell you," he said when asked what it was, pointing out that Billy Beane's willingness to share his process didn't exactly help him.

But in the case of Doughty, it's the things that can't be measured that make him great, and that's why he stands out as being too low on Greenberg's list during an audit. And it's not just the general manager who drafted him who thinks so.

When Greenberg's list was passed around among scouts and hockey execs, Doughty's name came up outside Los Angeles.

An Eastern Conference scout thought Subban was too high and Doughty too low. He would have placed Subban behind Ryan McDonagh at No. 10, and moved Doughty up the list. He wants to see a larger body of work from Subban before putting him in the Top 10. He's seen enough already from Doughty.

"Doughty has all the parts to be a factor whenever he is on the ice," the scout said. "The game seems to come quite natural to him. The more he pushes himself, the more of a factor he will be. He does a lot of little things that can go unnoticed because he makes them look so easy."

Doughty also was No. 8 on the list last season, and while players ahead of him like Jonathan Toews, Jordan Staal and Patrick Kane graduated from eligibility by turning a year older, Doughty's ranking didn't budge. In fact, he went from being the No. 1 defenseman on the list to No. 4.

With the Kings getting ready to try to wrest the Stanley Cup back from the Chicago Blackhawks, Lombardi believes Doughty is much better than he was when the Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2012.

Last season was a challenging one for the Kings' blue line. Willie Mitchell didn't play at all, which was a huge loss for Los Angeles. The Kings also got only five regular-season games from veteran Matt Greene, so that meant Doughty was thrust into every scenario.

"It was the first time [his ice time] was unabated," Lombardi noted.

Doughty's Relative Corsi Quality of Competition was 0.946 last season, while the next highest Kings defenseman (outside of Robyn Regehr, added at the trade deadline) was Rob Scuderi, who was at 0.690.

Like the scout, Lombardi said Doughty's subtleties are what put his game above some of his contemporaries.

"Just the way he gets his feet turned up the ice, changing speeds. Using the net, using the look-off -- sometimes I just shake my head. You see a guy go back for the puck and go, 'How is he going to get out of that one?' And then he's going full speed coming out of his own end."

Lombardi said Doughty's understanding of every angle defensively opens up passing lanes to get the puck to the forwards.

"That is a natural skill, it's a sixth sense," Lombardi said. "But is that going to end up on a highlight film?"

The injuries to the Kings' defensive corps last season may end up benefiting them in 2013-14. Lombardi saw growth not only in Doughty's game, but in Slava Voynov's as well. Voynov came in at No. 18 on Greenberg's list and could get even more of a boost with the surprising return of his former defensive partner, Willie Mitchell.

Voynov has been especially good in the playoffs, scoring six goals in 18 postseason games last spring.

"He's fearless," Lombardi said. "What I mean when I say fearless is the moment in the game doesn't cause him to pause. The bigger the moment, the more fearless he becomes."

Voynov still hasn't played a full 82-game regular season with the Kings, and his development could mean that a spot outside the Top 15 on this list could end up looking like a mistake.

Another California-based player was probably a little too low on this list. San Jose Sharks forward Logan Couture saw his ranking drop from No. 3 last season down to No. 9. He's coming off the best postseason of his career, one in which he scored 11 points in 11 games, including five power-play goals. That power-play total led the NHL postseason.

He saw his regular-season goals per game increase from 0.39 two seasons ago to a career-best 0.44 in 2013. And he's growing into one of the game's best complete young players.

"If I'm a defenseman, I want to play with a guy like Logan. He never cheats. How he plays without the puck is one of the reasons why he's so good," Sharks GM Doug Wilson said during a recent conversation. "I'm not sure there's a better player in the league under 25 [years old] in all three zones than Logan."

Like Doughty, Couture has that elevated hockey sense that is hard to measure. Part of it comes from an insatiable desire to improve his game that comes from a lifetime lived around the sport.

"He's curious. He always wants to get better. He has a great aptitude and ability to process," Wilson said. "It's not by a textbook or a book. It's playing ball hockey. Playing outside. You learn it because this is what works or you take a different approach."

At the bottom of Greenberg's list was one name that caught the attention of the scout. Gabriel Landeskog saw his goal total drop from 22 goals his rookie season to nine goals in 2013, so statistically it would be hard to justify his being higher than proven players like Jeff Skinner and Jakub Voracek. But when this list is released ahead of the 2014-15 campaign, don't be surprised if Landeskog makes a leap closer to the top.

"Landeskog has all the parts to be a dominating force," said the scout, noting that the 20-year-old is one of the youngest players on the list and may have the most upside. "He will be able to compete physically against other top-two-line forwards, something not necessarily all the other players [in the 25] have the ability to do."