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Kings' Mitchell still looking for ways to get better

By Curtis Zupke - NHL.com Correspondent

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Kings' Mitchell still looking for ways to get better
Willie Mitchell was the Kings' best defenseman in the first round, thanks in part to the amount of work he's still putting into improving his game.

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Los Angeles Kings practice has been over for at least 30 minutes and there are only three players on the ice.

Extra skaters Kevin Westgarth and Scott Parse do some drills at one end, while a metronome-like cadence of slap shots can be heard at the other.

Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!

Willie Mitchell takes pucks off the line. Thwack! Hard slaps from the point. Thwack! It's a post-practice routine he's incorporated later in his career, although it doesn't usually last this long.

However, it's days before the Western Conference Semifinals, and Mitchell wants to be ready.

"When it comes to game time, it's second nature," Mitchell said. "That's what you're thinking about -- shoot, shoot, shoot … I know I'm not going to be Drew Doughty skating up the ice and down or anything like that. But a lot of it is just getting pucks to the net."

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Willie Mitchell, offensive catalyst?

Well, not really. But this is somewhat of a renaissance for the 35-year-old Mitchell, who has come back from a career-threatening concussion two years ago and been rewarded for his decision to stay with the Kings by playing a role in their deepest playoff run since 2001.

Mitchell arguably has been L.A.'s best defensive player in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He was instrumental in funneling the Vancouver Canucks to the outside lanes in the Western Conference Quarterfinals. He logged a game-high 28:17 of ice time and had eight blocked shots in a series-clinching victory in Game 5 that was a microcosm of a season in which he got back to the shut-down role he had with Vancouver from 2006-10.

"He's been doing that all series, all year for us," goalie Jonathan Quick said. "Those are the intangibles that can go overlooked sometimes -- the blocked shots, the hits, or whatever it happens to be. He's done that all year."

Mitchell also added the aforementioned affinity for offense to his game. He had a career-high 24 points in the regular season, including a career-high tying five goals, and scored his first NHL power-play goal in Game 1.

The big smile on his face after that goal -- on a slap shot from the point -- could serve as the picture-perfect moment for Mitchell, who missed the last half of the 2009-10 season after he sustained a concussion on a hit by Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin in January 2010.

Mitchell couldn't entertain thoughts about continuing hockey, instead focusing on maintaining a normal life. He still was recovering during the summer of 2010 and didn't hide it when he became an unrestricted free agent.

"Teams were calling me on July 1," Mitchell said. "I didn't want to entertain that. I could have lied [and said], 'Yeah, I'm healthy. I'm great.' Right? I didn't do that. I wanted to get my [body] together before I even talked to teams."

Willie Mitchell
Willie Mitchell
Defense - LAK
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 1 | PTS: 2
SOG: 11 | +/-: 3
Because he was so-called damaged goods, most teams only offered him a one-year contract. But Los Angeles general manager Dean Lombardi proposed a two-year, $3.5 million deal, a money-where-your-mouth-is endorsement that convinced Mitchell, a British Columbia native, to leave his hometown team and sign with L.A.

"I had a great time there," Mitchell said of playing in Vancouver. "I was going to Canucks games as a kid all the time. I dreamed of playing for the Vancouver Canucks. I got to play for the Vancouver Canucks for four seasons. Dean knew that when he signed me here.

"To be honest with you, he said he really respected that. He respected the fact that I liked playing for the team that much and that I was committed to the team that much in Vancouver."

Mitchell remembered Lombardi's investment when re-signing was broached earlier this year. A pending free agent, Mitchell could have waited to test the market, and few would have blinked an eye. The Kings were turning around under new coach Darryl Sutter, but they still were a borderline playoff team that most believed needed more pieces to be a contender.

But Mitchell truly believed in his team's potential, and he signed a two-year extension Feb. 24. After an injury-shortened 2010-11 season that he called "OK," he added that offensive element to his game that he says was long overdue.

Mitchell played forward until 15 when Laurie Ryan, his midget coach at Athol Murray College of Notre Dame, converted him to defense because of his size and skating ability -- a product of figure-skating lessons "when I was really, really young," Mitchell said with a laugh.

From there Mitchell was pigeonholed into the position, and the defense-first mentality was hammered home under former Minnesota Wild coach Jacques Lemaire.

"He's a guy that's been through a lot in this League. He's played for a few different teams and experienced a lot as far as that goes. He means a lot for this team … not only on the ice, but the stuff he can pass along to the younger guys."
-- Jonathan Quick on Willie Mitchell

"I'll be honest with you, sometimes it [angers you] that you get labeled a one-dimensional player," Mitchell said. "I guess that's a little bit of credit for what I do [well] on the defensive side of the game.

"I owe a lot of that to Jacques Lemaire. He taught me so well on that side of the game. I focused all my energy to that, that sometimes maybe I was just thinking [defense] all the time instead of sometimes thinking, 'Just throw it on the net.' … It kind of motivates you as a player to get better and improve your game."

Of course, the Kings first need Mitchell's defense against the St. Louis Blues in their Western Conference Semifinal series that opens in St. Louis on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN). Sutter said it will take "serious committed minutes out of our three veteran defenseman," and that "Willie Mitchell and [Matt] Greene are going to have to be big."

Mitchell's veteran leadership has already been big. He is the oldest player on the Kings, who are 74-39-20 with Mitchell in the lineup. He is a media go-to guy as one of the better talkers in the League, and when he speaks to his teammates, they listen intently.

"He's a guy that's been through a lot in this League," Quick said. "He's played for a few different teams and experienced a lot as far as that goes. He means a lot for this team … not only on the ice, but the stuff he can pass along to the younger guys."

As Quick talked, Mitchell still was on the ice, his slap shots echoing in the rink until most of his teammates had left the building. The old defenseman still had work to do.

Quote of the Day

I remember the first time at Wrigley Field all of us had the long johns, the turtlenecks and the extra equipment because we were afraid of being cold. Halfway through the first period everybody's ripping everything off and we just ended up wearing what we would normally wear for a game at the United Center.

— Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp on the 2009 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic