Guest Post: A Welcome Addition – Willie Mitchell
Adam Gushansky, one of our readers and a die-hard L.A. Kings fan, wanted to take a stab at writing about the team. One day, he will probably want to do his own thing. Hell, he may even be good at it. For now, Adam wants to cut his teeth with us. Therefore, consider his next few articles his initiation, which should be part constructive and part hazing. Don’t take it easy on him. If you like what he wrote, tell him. If you think he needs an enema, tell him that too. The kid is a virgin at writing about our Kings. Let’s pop his cherry with this first one about Willie Mitchell that he finalized this weekend and asked that I publish. If you like what he writes and we do too, we will eventually give him access. For now, give him love or shit – Bobby Scribe
The Los Angeles Kings have undergone quite the changeover this offseason. From severing ties with key players like Dustin Penner and Rob Scuderi, to making the long-anticipated Jonathan Bernier deal and, peculiarly, adding Jeff Schultz and Dan Carcillo, the Kings can expect a new-look roster to begin the 2013-2014 season. But in fact, when it’s all said and done, the most significant acquisition this summer may not have come from a signing or trade, but rather a healing body. Recent reports suggest that Willie Mitchell (cross your fingers) will be ready come training camp.
It’s difficult to put into perspective the implications Mitchell’s return would have on and off the ice. Let’s face it: without Willie, the Kings are not a Stanley Cup contending team. And with the salary cap going down this season, Dean Lombardi has no choice but to rely on him to fill that void of a stay-at-home, veteran defenseman was created upon Rob Scuderi’s departure.
We know what Willie Mitchell brings to the table. Along with giving Slava a formidable partner at even strength, he provides the Kings with another booming shot from the point and a big, mobile body in front of the net. And, just as importantly, if Mitchell is healthy, that would allow Jake Muzzin, who at times seemed overwhelmed last season, to settle into a quieter role with Matt Greene on the bottom pairing. A healthy Willie Mitchell brings balance to the d-corps.
Of course, we should also temper our expectations if a return is indeed imminent. Coming back after not having played in over a year is no simple task. And he’s 36. He’s not going to play 22 minutes a night come play-offs – and he shouldn’t have to. Let’s remember that Slava Voynov has improved drastically over the last season both offensively and defensively, and Willie won’t, and shouldn’t be, expected to carry him like he did in the past.
But like any shrewd GM would, Dean Lombardi has a contingency plan. Should Mitchell’s recovery stagnate or condition – gulp – regress, Keaton Ellerby will likely be expected to pick up the slack. Muzzin would move up to play top-four minutes, while Ellerby plays with Greene. And should another defenseman go down, there’s recently-signed Jeff Schultz. The fact that there is a mere outside possibility that Jeff Schultz steps foot onto the ice this season should tell you it’s imperative for Willie Mitchell to stay healthy this season.
Assuming Mitchell is ready come training camp, the Kings will have a bit of a dilemma. They have nine defensemen. Teams typically carry seven during the regular season, but with Mitchell’s situation as volatile as it is, it’s safe to assume the Kings will carry eight and one spare forward rather than two. One defenseman must go. And there aren’t many reasonable options. The safe bet is that the Kings will go into training camp with all nine, and won’t rush to make a decision. The weakest link will be waived, and, if unclaimed, board the first flight to Manchester. Sounds simple enough.
Not so fast. All things considered, of nine guys, the weakest link is Jeff Schultz. But something tells me the Kings wouldn’t sign Schultz on the first day of free agency and have him as a candidate to go on waivers. As was first reported by Pierre LeBrun, Lombardi also tried to trade for him last year at the trade deadline. It would appear, unfortunately, that Deano foresees Schultz as a part of the Kings’ roster going forward.
So who’s the odd man out? Would the Kings waive Keaton Ellerby? Unlikely. Ellerby plays a Darryl Sutter-type game on defense – mean, physical – plus he’s a big body and can skate. Who does that leave? Alec Martinez. Martinez, who just signed a new deal, doesn’t really fit into the mold with Willie Mitchell healthy. Coach Sutter has not been shy to express his dismay with regards to Martinez’s development – or lack thereof – and seemed to favor dressing Ellerby over him. He plays a smooth, cerebral game, but for a guy who doesn’t have the size or raw strength, Martinez was neither dynamic nor consistent enough last season. He was in the doghouse.
My guess is that, by the time the season starts, Martinez is dealt for a second or third-round pick. Along with solving the problem of having too many defensemen, moving Martinez and his $1.1 million-dollar salary help the Kings get under the cap.
This would leave them with a top-six of Doughty, Regehr, Voynov, Mitchell, Greene, and Muzzin – with Ellerby and Schultz as spares – to start the season. Of course it’s all speculation at this point, but that is a formidable defense. Very formidable. A top-five one, perhaps. But one thing we know for certain, is that its future and success lie in the hands – or should I say knees – of Willie Mitchell.