EL SEGUNDO, CA — All summer long, fans of the Los Angeles Kings have been waiting with bated breath for their team to make off-season moves to improve the team, only to be let down in a big way, especially with superstar left wing Ilya Kovachuk all but a virtual lock to re-sign with the New Jersey Devils, even after his initial contract was rejected by the National Hockey League because it circumvented the league salary cap [the NHL’s decision was later affirmed by an arbirator].
Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi had his sights set squarely on signing Kovalchuk, but even though the Kings were a major player in the Kovalchuk sweepstakes, they lost out to the Devils during the early July free agent frenzy.
Meanwhile, the top unrestricted free agents were being signed by other teams, leaving the Kings, who had roster holes to fill, with very little to choose from.
That meant Lombardi was going to have to get creative and probably take a risk or two, and on August 25, he did just that by signing veteran, unrestricted free agent defenseman Willie Mitchell, 32, to a two-year contract that will pay him $3.5 million per season.
Last season, the 6-3. 208-pound native of Port McNeill, British Columbia scored four goals and added eight assists for twelve points with 48 penalty minutes and a +13 plus/minus rating in 48 regular season games with the Vancouver Canucks. The stay-at-home defenseman averaged 22:36 ice time per game—he has averaged 22 minutes per game the last four seasons and twenty minutes per game in each of his last eight seasons.
In 586 NHL regular season games with the Canucks, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild and the Devils, Mitchell has scored 19 goals and has tallied 100 assists for 119 points with 621 penalty minutes and a +62 rating. In 45 NHL playoff games, he has scored a goal and has contributed six assists for seven points with fifty penalty minutes and a +1 rating.
Mitchell was selected by the Devils in the eighth round (199th overall) of the 1996 NHL Entry Draft.
Picking up a veteran blue liner fills a gaping hole in the Kings’ lineup. But signing Mitchell is a big risk, as he has suffered three concussions during his NHL career. Indeed, even though he missed just ten regular season games due to injury in the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons combined, Mitchell suffered a concussion last season that forced him to miss much of the latter half of the season (34 games) and the playoffs.
Lombardi acknowledged the risk, but added that the gamble could pay off big.
“I think any time you get into free agency, there’s risks, and you’re balancing risks with what the payoff is,” said Lombardi. “We felt so strongly about this player, whether it was personnel, management, coaches, that it’s worth the risk.”
“There is risk with any player you sign,” added Lombardi. “When we got Jarret Stoll, [he] had already been through two concussions, so there was a risk there, but we haven’t had a problem. I signed Tony Granato in San Jose when Tony was coming off a brain aneurysm. I signed him to a three-year deal, and he went on and finished his career. Mike Ricci had a back that was supposed to be a disaster when I got him. So that was how strongly we felt, that we had to get aggressive here.”
Lombardi is always big on character, and that was another reason he was willing to take the risk.
“You’re also dealing with a player whose character is beyond reproach, and you know that no matter what happens, he’s going to do everything he can, as a player, to fulfill his obligations without jeopardizing himself,” Lombardi noted. “I think that’s a big part of it, too. When you’re talking about players with risk, all of those guys that I talked about, whether it was Ricci or Stoll or Granato or a Willie Mitchell, these guys are all character guys, and sometimes you go out on a limb a little, but I think the payoff is way too big.”
A key factor in Mitchell convincing the Kings to acquire him was going the extra mile to get healthy and assuage any fears they had about his health.
Indeed, Mitchell became an unrestricted free agent on July 1 and could have started negotiating with teams. But he chose to wait until he was sure he was ready to go.
“It goes back to the middle of June, when I started working out,” he explained. “I started feeling better in the middle of June. Instead of cranking it up, and knowing that July 1 was such an important date for any free agent—especially myself at the time—instead of cranking it up, I just wanted to go about things the right way and slowly, gradually build things up. I did that.”
“Starting about July 11 or 12, I hired my trainer and I was kind of doing two-a-days, where I was skating in the morning and training after that,” he elaborated. “I started feeling better in June, but really when I said, ’OK, everything is according to plan, everything is great,’ that was probably after I jumped all those hurdles—like I said earlier that I wanted to do—that was probably the middle of July.”
“I didn’t want to go about this in a way that, as soon as July 1 [came around], having not been through all those hurdles and things, put a general manager or a team in a position they don’t want to be [in]. So it took a lot longer than typical free agency [does] for some players. But I feel confident that it was the right way of doing things and I was fortunate enough to have some teams contact me.”
But as Mitchell worked to get ready to play again, the unrestricted free agent frenzy of early July had passed him by, limiting his options.
That was a sacrifice he was more than willing to make.
“If you listen to my agent, he probably wasn’t the happiest guy in the world, but like I said, by doing it the way I did, I might’ve closed some doors for myself, but I wanted to do it on my terms,” said Mitchell. “I didn’t want to do it with all those pressures weighing in on me, I didn’t want to make wrong decisions because of those pressures as far as going about my health the right way, or the decision as far as entertaining teams.”
“My process for the whole thing was first about going about my business, and then entertaining teams who were interested,” added Mitchell. “I felt that the teams that were going to be interested, as I was going about it this way, were probably the teams that were most interested in my services.”
By the time August came around, it was time to start looking for a team to play for, and Mitchell’s process paid off, not just for interested teams, but for himself as well.
“I did all this for me, not for anyone else, originally,” Mitchell explained. “I wanted to do it for myself and once I did, I started to entertain [offers from teams] and I wanted to do it in a way that was up front and could give them as much information as possible to see where I’m at and how I was doing.”
“I tried to have a pretty open process with the teams that contacted me and everyone who was involved in the situation,” Mitchell elaborated. “I was pretty open about what I felt I needed to do, and that, first, was to do the things I needed to do for a checks and balances system, to make sure I was prepared and ready to play.”
Mitchell really went out of his way to prove that he was healthy.
“I visited some teams to show my health and I also did some testing at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver,” said Mitchell. “I did the same testing we do at the start of the year to show that I was capable of all those things, that everything was on track. It was the right thing to do.”
Mitchell’s process impressed Lombardi and the Kings.
“I think the other thing that was really impressive about the way he did this was—it’s not easy with the teams, particularly with how highly we thought of him, in terms of his character and his fit,” said Lombardi. “For him to jeopardize July 1, creating a frenzy—because I don’t think there’s any doubt that, if he’s out there on July 1, he’s a very attractive commodity—he didn’t do that. I’m not sure how many players would do that at this stage of their career.”
“Having passed the league requirements and then having him talk to our own doctors, it was pretty impressive the way he worked out on his own with us,” added Lombardi. “We didn’t even ask him to do it. He went through the process on his own, again, showing the type of character that he has that makes him so attractive. Obviously, we have a lot of discussions, internally, about concussions. It’s such a nebulous thing to nail down, but I guess it’s safe to say we had three checks and balances, and he did as well as you can do.”
“He took a very methodical process, and quite frankly, did the right thing. ’I’ve got to get myself totally healthy.’ So you really trusted him. To see him jeopardize other opportunities to go about it the right way, it also gives you more confidence that he really is symptom-free. And more importantly, we are getting a very special character player. I think the way he did it, in the end, really made him attractive. I thought it was very professional, not only as an athlete but as a person.”
In addition to being impressed with Mitchell being so up front about his physical fitness, Lombardi said that he was high on his list of defensemen who could provide what the Kings needed.
“I just think that the way Willie plays, it’s one of those situations where the coaches looked at him and everybody was on board on what this player can bring to the team and how important he could be to this mix,” Lombardi emphasized. “[Kings Assistant coach] John Stevens was talking about the impact of the veteran of this caliber, what it can do for the young players, like [Kimmo] Timonen did for [Braydon] Coburn, that type of thing. It all comes together. I think I’m very comfortable with our mix right now.”
“Given the caliber of this player, and the fit, I think this is huge for us,” Lombardi added. “I’m totally comfortable with our top five [defensemen]. Then you’ve got some kids like [Davis] Drewiske breaking in, and we’ve got that slew [of young defenseman prospects] coming behind him.”
As stated earlier, adding Mitchell filled a big hole in the Kings’ lineup.
“It was a huge hole, something that was obviously staring at us all summer, and it’s hard to imagine getting a perfect fit like this,” said Lombardi. “His defensive skills are textbook, and I don’t think people appreciate, at times, the fact that he can make plays. He’s underrated in terms of his puck play.”
“If you put that in the mix of our top four, it’s got a real nice blend to it, so I think we’re pretty comfortable right now.”
Mitchell could easily find himself paired with Drew Doughty or Jack Johnson. But he can play the shut down role as well.
“Obviously [Kings head coach Terry Murray] has to make that call, but certainly internally, that’s where a pillar like this fits, with a guy like Drew or even a guy like Jack, whose game after the Olympics really went to another level,” Lombardi noted. “Like [Rob] Scuderi, Willie is underestimated with the puck. So that’s usually your traditional hockey mode, that pillar with the young puck-mover, but there are a number of options, too.”
“You could also see, late in a game when you’re protecting a one-goal lead, him and [Matt Greene] would be outstanding together,” Lombardi added. “Or you go into some buildings that are a little tougher than usual, and you’ve got to shut somebody down, you could see it going that way. He adds a lot to our arsenal, no question about it.”
Speaking of Greene,…he underwent shoulder surgery earlier this summer and is expected to be unavailable until November, at the earliest, raising the stakes for the Kings in terms of needing to find a player to shore up the blue line.
But Lombardi said Greene’s injury played no role in his pursuit of Mitchell.
“We saw him as the perfect fit for this team,” said Lombardi. “We would’ve been just as aggressive whether Greene was ready right at the start or not. It was never an issue. This guy was one of the top guys on our list for fit and for what he can bring to our team at this stage of our franchise.”
Especially in terms of fit, the feeling was mutual.
“I just thought the LA Kings was a good fit, to be honest with you,” said Mitchell. “I felt there was a lot of excitement among the staff that I met down in LA. I really felt they believed in me and that’s where you want to be as a player, somewhere where you feel they believe in you.”
“I got the feeling they thought I would be a really good fit,” added Mitchell. “For me, it was a chance to be a part of a young, up-and-coming team that has a lot of great things going. Hopefully, I can fit in that and with my experience in the league and help get the team to another level.”
Despite being courted by several teams, the Kings made a very strong impression and, obviously, won him over.
“There were a lot of moving parts in all directions, with general managers wanting to know about my health, and everyone involved,” he explained. “I went down to LA and had a good sit-down with them for the day. We talked about a lot of things. We talked about the fit and, to be honest with you, when I went down there, I walked away and you just have a feeling that it’s right, a feeling that is genuine, that they feel you can come in and make a difference and help the team. That, to me, was exciting. I like that, I like that challenge, I like that opportunity. Those kind of things bring the best out of my game. So that’s why I chose the direction that I did.”
“I thought [it] was genuine that they felt I could come in and help their hockey club and make a difference,” he added. “That, for me, is a situation you want to be in. That’s what gets the best out of you, as an individual, and that’s what makes you want to deliver for those people who think of you in that way.”
Mitchell was especially impressed by the fact that he would be playing with the likes of Johnson and Doughty, the James Norris Trophy finalist.
“It’s a situation you want to be in, it’s a great, young team, up-and-coming,” said Mitchell. “They have some great young defensemen, a good mix of defensemen back there. That was really intriguing to me as well. They have some players on the back end who I think I can help their game, but I think they’re going to help my game a lot as well. Just because they’re younger players doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them and their abilities. That really intrigued me a lot.”
“For me, it was just a good fit, playing on a team that has a chance to win and playing in the right situation, where I felt there was a good fit for me as a hockey player where I could play on a team and hopefully making a big difference,” added Mitchell. “Obviously that’s earned by a hockey player, but I feel there’s some good synergy there, as far as the young defensemen they have and that it’s a good fit for me to go down there and do what I’ve been doing in the league and continue to help in that way.”
Mitchell’s ex-teammates with the Canucks also helped him make his decision.
“Speaking to ex-teammates of mine now, and some peers of mine, they felt the Kings gave them everything that they could handle [during the playoffs],” Mitchell noted. “That’s exciting for a young team and as a young team, you have to go through some series and experiences like that to get you to the next level. I have been to the playoffs a lot in my career and, hopefully, I can come down and bring some experience in those situations and help the team build toward the ultimate prize.”
For now, Mitchell is just looking to play his game and fit in with his new team.
“I’ve played on a couple of teams, so I’m just going to come in and do the same things I’ve done for the teams I’ve played for that have brought me success as an individual,” he said. “I like to think I play a very reliable game, I like to be one of the most reliable players on the ice for a coach. I like to think I bring a calm presence, and hopefully I can do that for a young team in certain situations.”
“As a player, you come in and just try to fit in,” he added. “They have a good young team that’s got some good chemistry. They’re on the rise, and as a player, you want to come in and not affect that. You just want to slide in, be a good listener, see what’s going on and go out there, work hard and earn the respect of your teammates, your peers, and get into the fabric of the team that way.”
Getting to the next level is clearly something Mitchell has his sights set squarely on.
“Obviously I’ll try to do what I can do, with my experience, to help lend a hand and get the team to the next level,” Mitchell said. “That’s what it’s about, for all of us. Being a guy who has kind of been around a little bit, and [having] had some experience in the playoffs and stuff like that, I think I can help get that team to the next level.”
“I’ve still got some unfinished business [winning the Stanley Cup] left as a hockey player. That’s holding something up over my head, and I’m really looking forward to going down to LA and trying to accomplish that.”
Audio of Press Conference Call with Willie Mitchell and Dean Lombardi (edited to remove extraneous material and dead air; 27:17)
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