Elliott: The Kings' newest defensive hero, Mikey Anderson, plays next to his hero
When Mikey Anderson was initially paired with Drew Doughty to form the Kings’ top defense duo, Anderson was more inclined to ask Doughty for an autograph than to ask for a pass.
“I was a little starstruck,” Anderson said of Doughty, a leader on the Kings’ Stanley Cup championship teams, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and winner of the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman in 2016.
“He’s a guy I grew up watching on TV, playing with in video games,” Anderson said. “And then you come in here and you’ve got to play with him, it’s a little intimidating.”
Doughty’s support helped Anderson shed his nerves and become a solid defender with a hard-hitting edge. Anderson’s confidence and strength have grown exponentially, helping him blossom this season at both ends of the ice.
With every game he plays, the eight-year, $33-million contract extension he signed last month looks like more of a bargain for the Kings. The 23-year-old Minnesota native is a future captain in the making, and he was willing to give up several years of free agency to stay in Los Angeles.
“Ever since I’ve gotten here it’s felt like home,” he said. “It’s a place I fit in very well, or at least I feel I do. From a living standpoint it’s a place I can see myself staying for a while, starting a family and everything here. And the team’s in a good place. I like the way things are going as a group. I like the group of guys we’ve got here and I want to be a part of it.”
Anderson, who leads the team with 150 hits and ranks second to Matt Roy in blocked shots with 125, has produced career-best totals of five goals and 19 points in 71 games. That’s not overwhelming, but it’s a dimension that Anderson, who played on the power play at the University of Minnesota Duluth, can continue to explore.
“Obviously the defensive part has been my strength, what I’ve kind of built for myself. I don’t want to lose that,” he said Friday after the team practiced in El Segundo. “The way the game’s going, you want to be able to help offensively, especially because of the offensive defensemen we have in the league right now. I feel I can complement them well but it’s something I want to continue to improve on and help the team out if I’m able to.”
Coach Todd McLellan ranks Anderson among the NHL’s elite shutdown defenders and is impressed Anderson is trying to scale higher heights by enhancing his point production.
“I think he’s always been a really solid, checking, defend-first individual but he’s worked really hard on his shot and has a better sense of timing of when to jump in. He's much more confident offensively now,” McLellan said. “That’s the on-ice skill part.
“What you don’t get to see is his leadership on the bench, even in practice. There’s a lot of guys that have stepped up but he’s one that I notice on a regular basis using his influence on the group. And he does have an impact.”
For a still-evolving defenseman, Anderson is in a good place in his career — and in the locker room. Doughty sits to his right at the practice facility. Veteran Alex Edler sits to his left. Anderson has found his voice on the ice and in the room but he knows the value of listening.
“Getting to learn from these two, it’s awesome,” he said. “They have 2,000-plus games’ experience between the two of them. They’re great guys to be around. They’ve done it and on teams that have had a lot of success, they’ve had big parts in it, so for a younger guy you couldn’t ask for much more.”
Defense has lately been a strength for the Kings, who cleaned up their act after some early season stumbles and hold a 9-0-2 points streak after their 4-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday afternoon at Crypto.com Arena.
In their last nine games the Kings outscored their opponents 36-16, excluding the team goal awarded to Nashville and Vancouver in shootout losses to those teams. Their renewed focus on defense began after they beat the Jets 6-5 in a shootout at Winnipeg on Feb. 28. McLellan followed that by showing players a video emphasizing the value of small details such as coverage after a faceoff and defensive zone positioning.
That hit home for a team that’s scoring in bunches but still bases its identity on preventing goals.
“I think over the years we’ve realized what works for our group, and part of that is being a good defensive team,” Anderson said. “We did it a lot last year and that’s something we didn’t have so much at the start of the year and we’ve slowly found it. As time has gone on, we’ve gotten more comfortable doing it. We’ve trusted it. Everyone’s kind of bought into it. It helps that we’ve got goalies that are making saves when we need them to.
“Maybe with our breakdowns, we’re not making five or six a game like we used to at the start of the year. Now, it’s one or two. But they’ve been able to help us out when we need them. All in all I think it’s been a group effort and a good improvement from everyone.”
As for being called “Mikey” instead of Michael — his real name — or Mike, he said it’s the only name he’s ever known. “Some people get mad, like, ‘When are you going to change? You’re grown,’ ” he said. “I laugh.”
He’s done fine as Mikey. “Why change?” he said. “We’ll keep it.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.