EL SEGUNDO, CA — Following the 2009-10 season, the Los Angeles Kings lost defensemen Sean O’Donnell, Randy Jones and later in the summer, Matt Greene.
While O’Donnell and Jones signed with the Philadelphia Flyers and the Tampa Bay Lightning, respectively, Greene underwent shoulder surgery is expected to miss the first month of the 2010-11 season, at least.
That left the Kings undermanned on the blue line, but, even with Greene out of the lineup, the Kings defenseman corps looks to be better than last year’s model.
That improvement began with the loss of Jones—addition by subtraction. It continued with the Kings’ acquisition of veteran defenseman Willie Mitchell, who was signed to a two-year unrestricted free agent contract worth $3.5 million per year on August 25, 2010.
The 32-year-old native of Port McNeill, British Columbia is a tough, physical, stay-at-home defenseman who is an upgrade over the aging O’Donnell.
“Anytime you can add a player of the caliber of a Willie Mitchell, it’s a good thing for your team,” said defenseman Davis Drewiske, who appears to have a spot on the third defensive pair all but secured. “He’s going to be great to have around. He’s a guy I look forward to playing with and learning from.”
The first day of the Kings’ 2010 training camp provided a noticable example of the kind of player and competitor Mitchell brings to the Kings.
During a practice drill, right wing John Zeiler, a prospect with the slimmest of chances of making it back to the Kings’ lineup, exchanged pushes and shoves with Mitchell in the corner and along the boards while fighting for a loose puck.
Although it was not an altercation of any sort, Mitchell was not about to take what Zeiler was dishing out and made sure Zeiler knew it.
“[That’s two players showing] a little compete,” said Kings head coach Terry Murray. “You go through the summertime, you get to the month of August, you start skating, you’re doing your drills, you’re doing your scrimmaging—no one touches anyone.”
“You just have to get the work in, getting yourself ready for training camp,” added Murray. “But now you’re getting into the real deal. You’re starting to compete, battle. The dots-to-boards stuff is what it’s about to get yourself physically ready. That’s good stuff for both of those players, to do a little pushing and shoving.”
Mitchell will likely start the season paired with 2010 James Norris Trophy finalist Drew Doughty.
“Mitchell-Doughty—I really like the look,” Murray beamed. “[Mitchell is] a veteran player who’s really a solid, character person. He’ll really push Doughty along.”
The pair are quickly building chemistry in training camp.
“Young kid, excellent player,” Mitchell said of Doughty. “The way I play the game, I think we’ll complement each other well.”
“It’s been good, we’re having a lot of fun, off the ice and on the ice,” said Doughty. “We’re kind of the same personality types, so we’re already building chemistry. We can’t wait to get into a game and get more used to each other.”
Like the rest of his teammates, Doughty, 20, spent many hours in the gym.
“Now that I’m growing out of my teen-age body, I’m getting a lot stronger in the gym,” Doughty explained. “I really worked hard.”
“Last year, I really improved my shot and that was one of the things I worked on last summer, but this summer, I worked on everything—getting quicker and more mobile,” Doughty elaborated. “I worked on my hands and my shot again, too.”
The 6-0, 212-pound native of London, Ontario scored 16 goals and added 43 assists for 59 points in 82 regular season games last season, along with three goals and four assists for seven points in six playoff games.
“I’m going to try to do some of the things I did last season,” said Doughty. “I want to go out there and play my best. I feel better on the ice after another [summer] working out.”
Despite being a Norris Trophy finalist, Doughty is still a young kid as far as being an NHL player is concerned, and still has a few things to work on, even though he is already one of the best blue liners in the league.
“I certainly wouldn’t mind a repeat of last year,” said 31-year-old veteran defenseman Rob Scuderi. “The only thing he could work on is consistency at times, but I think even that’s a stretch.”
“He’s been consistently good,” added Scuderi. “When you’re talking about a player of his caliber, sometimes just repeating the year is more than what we would need.”
The Kings’ second defensive pair will feature Jack Johnson and Scuderi.
Johnson, 23, is coming off a year in which he got off to a bit of a slow start, especially in terms of play in his own end, but really picked up his game in the second half of the season.
“I thought, when he came back from the Olympics, he was much more responsible,” Scuderi noted. “He made great decisions with the puck. When you’re one of the last two guys back with the puck, you cannot make the big mistake. I thought that was something he really limited in the second half of last year.”
Johnson will need to continue to improve, especially in his defensive zone coverage.
“Jack has got a lot of talent,” said Scuderi. “We just have to learn to rope it in a little bit at times, and let him do what he can do at the right times. I thought he made big strides last year, playing good, solid defense, and, when he could, [he added] a lot to the offense.”
“If he can continue to develop that part of his game, we’re really going to benefit from it.”
Johnson elevated his game to another level in the playoffs against the Vancouver Canucks, when he contributed seven assists.
“The playoffs are so much more fun,” said Johnson. “They’re way more intense, the games really mean something. You kind of just have to get through the regular season to get to the playoffs. I wish we could just fast forward to the playoffs because they’re just so much more fun to play in.”
“I’ve always felt that I played my best hockey during those fun times,” added Johnson.
The top five defenseman spots appear to be filled, even though the Kings are just five days into their 2010 training camp. That leaves one spot open, and it could conceivably be filled by a young prospect, including Thomas Hickey or, perhaps, Jake Muzzin.
“With the addition of Mitchell, and now our top four guys being pretty solid, it would allow a younger player to step in and fill a spot,” said Murray.
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