Willie Mitchell And The Logjam On Defense
For a franchise that has traditionally never had a strong pipeline of prospects with the skills to play in the NHL, the Kings all of a sudden have a very high-class problem. With six playoff tested defensemen already on the roster and a seventh, Davis Drewiske, who at one point played well enough to merit a one-way contract, the team lacks an obvious opening for a youngster to earn a spot. Meanwhile, the Kings have an embarrassment of riches of blue line prospects. Jake Muzzin played well enough to make the opening night roster last year. Vyacheslav Voinov has shown steady improvement in his three years in North America and by many accounts may be our most NHL-ready prospect. Behind them are Thomas Hickey, a former number four overall draft pick, and Andrew Campbell who could eventually find his way to the NHL. That is before we even discuss last year’s number one pick, Derek Forbort, and Nic Deslauriers who may have the most upside of any of the defense prospects. The latter two clearly require more seasoning but may one day be knocking on the door. The Kings plainly need to open a slot on defense as soon as the beginning of next season for one or more prospects who have earned a promotion.
That leads to a discussion of our current depth chart. Clearly, Drew Doughty is untouchable, and Jack Johnson, with his team-friendly cap hit and still boundless upside, is also part of the core. Alec Martinez played well after getting his shot last season, but will likely need to continue to improve in order retain his spot long-term. Rob Scuderi still has two years remaining on his contract and has been a pillar of consistency since arriving in Los Angeles. His future will be discussed in a forthcoming article. That leaves just two slots in question. While Matt Greene has been an uncompromising warrior for the club since arriving from Edmonton, his lack of foot speed was exposed in the playoffs and remains a real liability. This is offset by his intangibles as he is the most vocal leader on the team, and his weaknesses can be somewhat concealed by limiting his ice time. This leaves Willie Mitchell, whose contract is up after this season,
For certain periods last season, Mitchell was the Kings’ best defenseman. He plays a tight, suffocating style that takes away space from even the most skilled forwards combined with a punishing physicality. Put another way, Mitchell is the very epitome of ‘tough to play against’. On the downside, Willie missed 25 games last season due to injury although he did manage to avoid a repetition of the concussion problems that have plagued his career. Given the style that Mitchell plays, injuries are almost inevitable, and entering this season at 34, he isn’t getting any younger. Yet, this season where expectations are extremely high, having a reliable veteran like Mitchell in the top two pairings is critical. Looking forward, Dean Lombardi has often stated that he wants to pair a youngster with a veteran on the back-end. I ask at what point do Doughty (going into his fourth full season) and Johnson (fifth) graduate to the latter status?
What we learned this summer is that Lombardi no longer holds a free option on all of our prospects. If they feel like they are not getting a shot, these players are now bolting overseas, witness Bud Holloway. Voinov has made noises about returning to his Russian motherland should he not make the NHL roster out of camp this season. Who can blame these players who can make more money, often tax-free, playing in Europe rather than riding busses in Manchester waiting for an injury at the big club to finally get their opportunity? That sucks for the Big Club which loses the use of an asset for at least a season without gaining anything in return.
The resulting conclusion is that Mitchell is superfluous after this season. Assuming the kids, particularly Muzzin and Voinov continue to pay their dues and exceed all the expectations the Kings set for them, a spot will need to be opened up. Moving Drewiske may be a short-term fix by opening up the number seven slot, but I am sure the Kings do not want a promising youngster spending more than half the games in the press box. At some point, very soon, the kids need to be rewarded for their development with a roster spot. Unless Matt Greene is traded or Alec Martinez is outplayed, this will be the last season we see Willie Mitchell in purple. The time is fast approaching for the transition to the next generation on defense to begin.