One of the offseason goals for general manager Dean Lombardi was to make sure the Los Angeles Kings' defense was deep enough in case Willie Mitchell remains on the sidelines because of his knee injury.
Mitchell's offseason goal is to show Lombardi he didn't have to be so cautious.
After missing all of last season with a knee injury that puzzled doctors and left Mitchell depressed, the 36-year-old defenseman has been making progress in his rehab while skating at the Kings' practice facility as he attempts to get himself ready for training camp next month.
Mitchell has declined to talk publicly about his rehab this summer, but Lombardi said Mitchell's attitude has changed to enthusiastic as his progress has improved, a good sign for the Kings and a legitimate reason to believe the defenseman who played more than 25 minutes a game and was the team's best penalty killer in its run to the Stanley Cup championship in 2012 will be back in the lineup this season.
Lombardi's praise of Mitchell describes how important his return would be to the Kings.
"When he is out there, and I don't think I'm out of line, I think he's one of the top-five most underrated players in the League," Lombardi told NHL.com. "I think you've really got to know the game to appreciate him. We all appreciated him when we had him, but, boy, there are subtleties in his game that you see night in and night out. It's his stick and his positioning. He's probably one of the top penalty killers in the League.
"If he's back and he's playing with [Slava] Voynov, that's a classic matching pair. Knock on wood, it's been good so far."
Lombardi traded for defenseman Robyn Regehr on April 1 in part because he knew Mitchell wasn't returning last season and he needed to bolster the defense for a playoff run, which ended in the Western Conference Final. Lombardi then covered himself by signing Regehr to a two-year extension during the playoffs.
The Kings were unable to re-sign defenseman Rob Scuderi, who left last month for a four-year, $13 million contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but that won't be a setback if Mitchell returns. In case he doesn't, Lombardi signed Jeff Schultz, a player he said he thinks can have a career resurrection in Los Angeles. By re-signing Jake Muzzin, Alec Martinez and Keaton Ellerby, he gave the Kings nine defensemen with a one-way contract.
However, Mitchell's return would change the dynamic of the crowded blue line, erase the sting of losing Scuderi, and would force Lombardi to make a hard decision or two, because keeping nine defensemen on the NHL roster is not ideal.
It's a problem Lombardi wants to have.
"I guess we're deep, particularly if Willie is healthy; but to me they're like good pitchers, I don't think you can have enough of them," Lombardi said. "I'll deal with this a whole lot better than I would with a shortage. It's a good problem to have."
Kings players are with Lombardi in thinking Mitchell is as valuable to the team as any of its stars.
Captain Dustin Brown said the Kings particularly missed Mitchell in the conference final against the Chicago Blackhawks, a team that thrives off the rush and was able to dominate possession time for long periods against the Kings because of it.
"[Mitchell] has very good reads in those odd-man situations. He always makes the right play," Brown told NHL.com. "Now he's doing all the things to get healthy, and now it's just a matter of getting back to where he needs to be to be on the ice with us. It's kind of a wait-and-see with him, but you talk to him and he sounds upbeat and positive about the situation in getting back to playing with us."