EL SEGUNDO, CA — As we move into the seventh day of the Los Angeles Kings 2013 Training Camp, only four of the team’s defensemen are guaranteed to be in the opening night lineup in a few weeks.
Drew Doughty, Matt Greene, Robyn Regher, and Slava Voynov are locks to be patrolling the Kings blue line come opening night. That leaves three or four roster spots for players such as Keaton Ellerby, Alec Martinez, and Jake Muzzin to battle each other for.
Two players trying to make comebacks of sorts are also in the mix, including veteran defenseman Willie Mitchell, who is working his way back into shape after sitting out for more than a year due to two surgical procedures on his knee.
But so far during training camp, Mitchell has not experienced any difficulty with his knee. As for difficulties in his play, Mitchell joked, “Ask Darryl. He’ll tell you all the difficulties.”
Head coach Darryl Sutter indicated that Mitchell will be eased into more and more work during practices, eventually moving him into game action during a pre-season contest.
Despite that, Mitchell is itching to get into a game…sort of.
“To be honest with you, I’d really like to play [in] a game,” said the 36-year-old native of Port McNeill, British Columbia. “I almost want to be in right away. But when I remove myself from the situation, what Darryl’s doing—we chatted about it—it’s the right thing.”
“It’s allowing me to get my timing back, and it’s allowing me to battle a little bit more—not go zero-to-60 with things, and it’s not only for my knee,” added Mitchell. “It’s for my confidence, my game, and stuff like that.”
“All of a sudden, you get thrown out there right away, and you’ve been out of hockey for 14 months? As some guys start to [get cut from training camp], there’s more regulars—I can lean on those guys a little bit, too.”
As Mitchell pointed out, he has been away from the game for 14 months. It will take awhile for the timing and other aspects of his game to fire on all cylinders once again.
“I’ve got confidence in my abilities—you have to [in order] to get to this point in the league,” Mitchell noted. “But I’m a positional player. I’m not Marian Gaborik [in terms of] speed. It’s more positional [play], so getting those reps in practice, getting comfortable, getting comfortable with pressure, reading pressure, and doing all those things—when we get to game situations, it’ll be much easier.”
The other key issue for Mitchell after 14 months without hockey is his conditioning, which he says is “OK.”
“It’s just like everyone else at this time of year,” he emphasized. “You can work as hard you want during the summer, but you can talk to any hockey player. There’s nothing you can do to replicate skating, except to get on the ice and skate. [But] even in the summer, you can’t [skate] at the level that you can at a camp.”
“There’s nothing like getting out there and battling—battling bodies, having to be strong on the puck—it’s just a whole body strength thing, and I’m doing that more,” he added. “I’m feeling comfortable. Today was a really good day. I had a lot of jump out there.”
“It must’ve been the yoga we were doing yesterday,” Mitchell said, chuckling.
The other defenseman trying to make a comeback and battle for a roster spot is Jeff Schultz, who was signed as an unrestricted free agent on July 5, 2013, a one-year deal worth $700,000.
The 26-year-old, 6-6, 230-pound native of Calgary, Alberta had three solid years with the Washington Capitals in 2007-08, 2008-09, and 2009-10. That season, he earned an astronomical +50 plus/minus rating while playing alongside defenseman Mike Green. But after that, Schultz’ ice time dropped dramatically, as he appeared in just 54 games in 2011-12, and only 26 games in 2013-13.
The Capitals placed him on waivers on July 2, for the purpose of buying out his contract.
Schultz attributed his reduced ice time to a number of factors.
“It wasn’t just one thing, in particular,” said Schultz. “[There were] a couple of coaching changes, and they brought things to the team that, maybe, they didn’t see me [fitting into]. So it’s not one thing. It was, kind of, a bunch of things.”
Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi indicated that signing Schultz may turn out to be worth the risk.
“It depends on which Jeff Schultz we get,” said Lombardi. “This is a young guy, and if you look at his from the year he was a +50, that player could be a very good player for us. There’s a lot of similarities in his game to [former Kings defenseman Rob] Scuderi’s.”
“He lost his confidence, or whatever, the last couple of years, but he’s still a young guy,” added Lombardi. “This isn’t a guy whose game went down because of age, so you’re hoping he gets back to where he was three or four years ago. If you look at those games when he was playing with Green, he was the perfect guy. There was a lot of Scuderi in his game.”
“Considering that he was available at a very reasonable price, we thought that this was something that was worth taking a look at because he’s still a young player. When you saw what he was capable of—the rap on him was that he’s a big guy, but not the most physical. But this guy was a really good defender [back] then. Somehow, he got off track. We’ll see if we can get him back on.”
Schultz knows that despite signing a contract with the Kings, there are no guarantees.
“I looked at [signing with the Kings] as a great opportunity,” said Schultz. “I know they have a lot of defensemen. It’s going to be a tough team to crack. I just have to take it day by day here, learn as much as I can, and leave everything on the ice.”
Schultz certainly has a lot of adjusting to do.
“He’s asking a lot of questions about how we play, and that’s a good thing,” said Sutter. “He’s got to get used to how we play, X’s and O’s—[there is a] big difference coming to the Western Conference from the Eastern Conference. That’s a big adjustment.”
“The biggest thing for me is to keep my feet moving, and it’s still a learning process, with the change in systems, and stuff like that,” Schultz noted. “That’s where I need to focus—just take it game by game, and whenever I get the opportunity to play, I need to play my best.”
“[The Kings are] really aggressive, and I think using my big, long reach, and my long stick, it could really help with neutral zone rushes, taking time and space away, and hopefully getting the puck up to the forwards, and getting out of our zone quickly,” Schultz added.
But first things first.
“The first thing was that they need me to get back to playing like I did that one year, and if I can get back there, there [will] be a good chance that I’ll be playing games here,” said Schultz. “That’s kind of the mindset, and it’s a lot of pressure, but I think I’m up to the challenge.”
Nolan Escapes Suspension
Late on September 16, the National Hockey League announced that Kings right wing Jordan Nolan would not face supplementary discipline for his open-ice hit on Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Rostislav Klesla during a pre-season game on September 15, at Jobing.com Arena in Glendale, Arizona.
Klesla suffered a concussion as a result of the hit.
Sutter talked about the hit on Monday afternoon.
“It was a good, clean, hit. I mean, watch it,” Sutter noted. “You can stop it, you can watch from every angle. The player had his head down, and he got hit in the chest. The other team never even reacted to it, to be quite honest, because they saw it, too. There wasn’t much reaction to it at all. Both teams knew.”
You can watch a video of the hit, and listen to the league’s ruling at: Nolan Gets No Supplemental Discipline For Hit On Klesla.
Kings Make First Training Camp Roster Cuts
On September 16, the Kings made their first set of training camp roster cuts, assigning eight players to their junior teams:
Justin Auger – RW (Guelph Storm, Ontario Hockey League)
Matthew Campagna – C (Sudbury Wolves, OHL)
Patrik Bartosak – G (Red Deer Rebels, Western Hockey League)
Nick Ebert – D (Windsor Spitfires, OHL)
Dominik Kubalik – LW (Sudbury, OHL)
Zachary Leslie – D (Guelph, OHL)
Kurtis MacDermid – D (Owen Sound Attack, OHL)
Marcus McIvor – D (North Bay Battalion, OHL)
49 players remain on the Kings 2013 Training Camp roster.
Frozen Royalty Raw Audio Interviews – 2013 Los Angeles Kings Training Camp, September 16, 2013
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed):
Willie Mitchell (2:09)
Jeff Schultz (2:14)
Darryl Sutter (3:55)
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