LOS ANGELES – The oldest is 37. The youngest are 24. There are Americans, Canadians, a Russian and one born in Brazil. Some play with offensive flourish. Some want to knock your teeth down your throat. One has the unique ability to do both.
The Los Angeles Kings defensemen are anything but homogenous. This goes for their style on the ice and their demeanor off it.
“We got seven guys that have completely different personalities,” said Drew Doughty.
There's Doughty, 24, the team’s star defenseman. Jake Muzzin, 25, a second-year standout; Slava Voynov, 24, the slick-skating Russian; Willie Mitchell, 37, the prototypical defensive defenseman; Matt Greene, 31, the big-bodied stopper; Robyn Regehr, 34, the veteran big money defender; and Alec Martinez, the third-pairing rock and Game 7 hero.
It’s a group that helped the Kings to the best goals-against average in the NHL during the regular season (2.05) and make them the NHL’s best possession team (57.3 percent in corsi). There’s balance between defensive rocks like with offensive dynamos.
“Me and Drew were talking about it the other day,” said Muzzin, Doughty’s defense partner. “We all bring our own little attitudes and quirks to the game. A mix of young guys and old guys. We understand our jobs and our roles. And we want to shut down the other team.”
Said Martinez, “We got a bit of a mix of personalities. But that’s not a bad thing at all. We’ve got some guys that are quieter than others and some that are louder than others. You guys probably know who they are."
One of them might be the best player on the roster.
Drew Doughty’s maturation as a star player has been well-chronicled, in the sense that nearly every question asked at a coach and general manager press conference for the Kings is about Drew Doughty’s maturation as a star player.
“Right from the beginning, I envisioned that,” said Doughty, drafted second overall in the 2008 Entry Draft.
“About one year after my first season, [GM Dean Lombardi] put the emphasis on my being a leader. Right away you see me, [Anze Kopitar] at forward and [Jonathan Quick] in the back, and you see three elite players, and three players that want to win.”
Doughty has 16 points in 21 games, skating a machine-like 27:50 per night on average.
“He can play and play and play. He’s a freak,” said Muzzin.
He’s also singularly obsessed with winning in a way that only the true great ones are. It’s a hunger that spreads to the rest of the defense corps, and the Kings locker room as a whole.
“I’m so competitive. I want to win so bad,” Doughty said. “I’ve become a lot better off the ice. I’m more of a leader now. Sometimes I snap on the ice and get after the refs, which is something I hate doing. Sometimes I get down on myself. I’ve learned to deal with that better. Some of that is thanks to my teammates.”
Doughty has a personality as robust as his play. He wears his emotions.
The kid nicknamed "Doughnuts" as a rookie has also been known to crack a joke or two.
The rest of the defense?
“They’re funny in their own way,” said Doughty.
Who’s the funniest?
“The funniest? I don’t know. Our humor is different in different situations,” he said.
“Matt Greene might be the funniest. He’s at least the loudest. And he’s smart with his humor.”
Matt Greene is holding court on the other side of the Staples Center interview room from Doughty. He’s 31, in his sixth season with the Kings after three seasons with the Edmonton Oilers. There’s a microphone in his face from TSN’s impeccably dressed Gino Reda.
“Hey Gino, good to see you. Thanks for making it formal,” says Greene.
Reda asks about the New York Rangers, the Kings' opponent in the Stanley Cup Final. Are the players excited for the New York vs. LA dynamic?
“I’m sure all players are thinking about it … for escrow,” said Greene, referring to what the series would do for the players’ cut of revenue.
Next question: TSN wants to know if the Kings players know where Slovenia, Kopitar’s homeland, is located.
Do you know where Slovenia is, Matt Greene?
But what country is it located nearby?
“Slovenia ... c’mon, man, it’s a sovereign nation.”
But what’s next to it?
“Croatia.” And he’s right. Good to see geography was stressed at the University of North Dakota, his alma mater.
I tell him about Doughty’s claim that he’s the funniest player on the team. Is he the funniest?
“It’s a pretty obvious choice," he said.
“It’s a distant second. Slava Voynov is hilarious. He’s hilarious. Ask him a couple of questions.”
I walk over to Voynov and soon discover that he as about as much a grasp on English as I do quantum mechanics. It's less a conversation than a collection of awkward nods and smiles.
Thus confirming that Matt Greene is, in fact, the funniest on the team.
Greene and Willie Mitchell are the elder statesmen on defense along with Regehr, who was injured in the Anaheim Ducks series and has yet to return.
Not that missing a body is going to rattle this group.
The Kings’ defensemen have shown an ability to play in any combination, in any situation. Mitchell moved up to play with Voynov when Regehr went down. Martinez has anchored the third pairing, with Greene playing for Mitchell there. Doughty and Muzzin have been an effective pairing as well. Heck, even Jeff Schultz popped into the lineup without causing a ripple.
And it’s not just about keeping the puck out of the net. Take Game 7 against the Chicago Blackhawks: Greene, filling in for Regehr, had two assists. Martinez had the game-winner in overtime to send the Kings into the Cup Final to face the Rangers.
How was the ride back from Chicago?
“It was quiet,” Muzzin said, with a laugh.
“Obviously, it was a good time. The guys were happy, telling stories of the series. When we landed 2 or 3 in the morning, there were a couple thousand fans there.”
It was a moment of pride for Martinez, not only for scoring the definitive goal of the playoffs for the Kings thus far but for the way his defense stepped up through the 21 games it took to get to the Final.
“We’ve got a lot of depth on D,” said Martinez. “We all bring something different to the table, and do things our own way. And we’re all capable of getting the job done. You’re bound to face a little adversity, especially in losing [Mitchell] and [Regehr]. You don’t replace those guys with one guy. Everyone has to step up.”
Again, you couldn’t find seven more disparate personalities or playing styles.
But it works, especially when the pressure's on.
“We’ve got a lot of good guys in that locker room,” said Martinez. “I don’t think we get this far if we don’t.”