Here’s some of what Florida Panthers defenseman Willie Mitchell said about playing at Staples Center for the first time since leaving as a free agent during the offseason, and for the first time since celebrating the Kings’ second Stanley Cup championship in three seasons:
“I’ll be honest, there were a lot of days that I hated (Kings coach) Darryl Sutter when I played for him, but he sure got the best out of his players and he sure knows how to motivate and coach the right way as far as positioning and stuff like that. He’s an excellent coach.
“I’ll be honest, (an in-game tribute on the scoreboard) was a little bit easier. I think just actually skating out for warmups the first time and you see the signs around. It’s, like, ‘This is real. I’m not playing here anymore.’”
For starters, Florida Panthers defenseman Willie Mitchell makes his Los Angeles return Tuesday night to face the Kings, the team he helped win Stanley Cup championships last season and in 2012. Mitchell, who signed a two-season, $8.5-million contract with the Panthers during the offseason is one of a number of players who make the Panthers more formidable than anticipated.
Second, Florida (6-4-5) has victories over the Ducks and San Jose Sharks, a pair of Western Conference elite teams, within the last week. The Panthers thumped the Ducks 6-2 on Sunday. Kings defenseman Alec Martinez is expected to be sidelined for about a week after undergoing finger surgery Friday.
Third, the Kings (9-5-4) ended a two-game losing streak with a 3-2 overtime victory Saturday over the Ducks. Tyler Toffoli leads the Kings with eight goals, and rookie Tanner Pearson has seven. Toffoli also has a team-leading 10 assists.
Did the Kings do enough in the offseason to stay on top?
General manager Dean Lombardi showed his faith in his roster by keeping it intact. Lombardi didn’t wish to mess with success. He did not sign any outside free agents, but did retain the services of veteran winger Marian Gaborik. Lombardi rewarded Gaborik, the Kings’ leading goal-scorer in the playoffs with 14, with a new seven-season contract worth more than $34 million. Lombardi also allowed veteran defenseman Willie Mitchell to depart as a free agent. Mitchell signed a new contract with the Florida Panthers in the summer. Lombardi did not make any trades.
Meanwhile, opposing teams in the Western Conference bulked up in the summer.
The Ducks, smarting from a second-round playoff loss to the Kings, added size and grit by trading for center Ryan Kesler and signing defenseman Clayton Stoner. They also took a chance on former 50-goal scorer Dany Heatley, hoping he could jump-start his career in Orange County.
The Chicago Blackhawks signed former New York Rangers veteran Brad Richards for the same reason the Ducks signed Kesler. The Blackhawks, who lost to the Kings in the conference finals, coveted a stronger, more experienced second-line center to compete with their rivals.
The Dallas Stars, eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs by the Ducks, acquired former Ottawa Senators standout Jason Spezza in order to get deeper and more experienced at the center position. Spezza was No. 2 behind Kesler on the Ducks’ offseason wish list.
The St. Louis Blues added Paul Stastny from the Colorado Avalanche, a rising superstar in the NHL who plays, wait for it, center. The Blues were still smarting from their first-round exit at the hands of the Blackhawks last spring when they made the move.
It seemed the minute the Kings announced Tuesday they agreed with Matt Greene on a new four-contract that Willie Mitchell’s days with the team were over. Mitchell is simply caught in a numbers game on defense. The Kings are up against the salary cap for starters, and they have plenty of options if they don’t re-sign Mitchell, a 37-year-old who helped them win two Stanley Cup championships. Mitchell wanted to re-sign with the Kings, preferring to remain in Southern California. He might get one of those wishes if he signs with the Ducks, who could use another veteran D-man.
Here’s a list of Kings defensemen under contract, with expiration dates: Greene (2017-18), Drew Doughty (2018-19), Alec Martinez (2014-15), Jake Muzzin (2014-15), Robyn Regehr (2014-15) and Slava Voynov (2018-19).
Here’s what Mitchell had to say recently about his future:
“I mean, there’s lots of moving parts. I get it. There’s Willie Mitchell the player. There’s the salary cap, and then there’s as a GM you structure your team so, hopefully, you can have success over a long period of time. So I get it. If you’re asking me if I want to play hockey, hell yeah, and to be honest, I think probably this playoffs is the best hockey I’ve played.”
Kings defenseman Drew Doughty figures to get plenty of votes for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the 2014 playoffs. Here’s what teammate Willie Mitchell had to say Wednesday when asked what makes Doughty a special player: “His passion for the game. I’ve said it all along, there’s people who kind of thought he didn’t care enough or was too lax. But he just loves the game and loves to compete. … That’s his No. 1 attribute. He loves to come to the rink and he wants to make a difference every game and I really respect it.”
Most NHL players can skate backwards without a great deal of trouble, although defensemen are generally better at retreating while watching the play in front of them than forwards. There’s no one who isn’t a good skater going forwards, although some are a little faster than others, especially with the puck on their stick.
But how about sideways?
Willie Mitchell marveled at fellow Kings defenseman Drew Doughty’s ability to move laterally with the puck while making a move that produced the tying goal in the second period of a 3-2 overtime victory in Game 1 on Wednesday night.
“There are very few defensemen in the league who can skate sideways,” Mitchell said. “If you watch that goal, he was pretty much skating sideways to make his little shuffle there. We all know probably one of the best defensemen ever to play the game, (Nicklas) Lidstrom, and how he could skate sideways. We’re fortunate enough to have a player of that magnitude to do that and he knew he had to do that to get us back in the game after the stuff early on.”
There was zero actual news as the Kings and Blackhawks held practices Tuesday at the United Center in preparation for Game 2 of the Western Conference finals. There was the possibility that Chicago center Andrew Shaw could return to the lineup after suffering a leg injury during the Blackhawks’ second-round series victory over the Minnesota Wild. But no decision was made either way.
“It’s good to be back,” Shaw said. “It sucks being away from the guys. We have such a tight-knit group. It’s all smiles to be back out there with them. I feel like it looks good (to play in Game 2), so I feel pretty good, too.”
The Kings lines and defense pairs appeared to be unchanged from Game 1, with defenseman Willie Mitchell skating with Slava Voynov. Mitchell sat out all of the Kings’ second-round victory over the Ducks because of a leg injury suffered in Game 6 of their first-round win over the San Jose Sharks. He returned and played a sound game in the Kings’ 3-1 loss to the Blackhawks in Game 1.
Couple of news updates from today’s media sessions …
Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell update
Kings coach Darryl Sutter called the play of defenseman Willie Mitchell “solid,” after Mitchell played nearly 17 minutes in Game 1, his first action since he suffered a leg injury in Game 6 of the Kings’ first-round series against the San Jose Sharks.
Kings defenseman Robyn Regehr update
Sutter said defenseman Robyn Regehr hasn’t resumed skating after he was injured in Game 1 of the Kings’ second-round series against the Ducks. Sutter’s policy is to avoid talking about injured players, so that was the only update he would provide reporters.
Blackhawks center Andrew Shaw update
Injured center Andrew Shaw is expected to skate with his Blackhawks teammates today, and Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said the team would “assess” his progress, adding, “He’s made real good progress the last few days and he felt pretty good (Monday).”
Injured defensemen Willie Mitchell and Robyn Regehr were not on the ice when the Kings held a short practice Wednesday morning in El Segundo. Forward Jeff Carter also was not on the ice, but Kings coach Darryl Sutter said he would try to give Carter and defenseman Drew Doughty plenty of rest during the playoffs.
“Jeff and Drew played a lot of hockey this year, played in the gold-medal game,” Sutter said, referring to Carter’s and Doughty’s participation with Canada in the Sochi Olympics. “The more (rest) you can give them, the better. (Carter) is not a guy who needs to skate. He does his work off the ice.”
That was about it as far as news goes.