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Defensive Picture Becoming Less Puzzling

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings
Now with Willie Mitchell joining the Kings back end, the real fun starts, defensive pairings?  Terry Murray will have lots of options for Jack Johnson and Drew Doughty in 2010-11.

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The Kings have the pieces on defense.

Now, how will they all fit together?

Wednesday’s signing of Willie Mitchell to a two-year contract allowed general manager Dean Lombardi to exhale, confident that he had acquired the veteran defenseman who would properly fill a number of roles, both on and off the ice.

Mitchell, 33, has been deemed healthy after missing nearly half of last season while trying to recover from a concussion. The addition of a big-bodied, responsible left-shot defenseman, who formerly served as an alternate captain in Vancouver, presents the Kings with several options on the blue line as they prepare for training camp.

The Kings now appear to have a clear top four on defense, with Mitchell joining Drew Doughty, Rob Scuderi and Jack Johnson, all of whom have displayed the potential to play in excess of 20 minutes per game at a high level.

"It was something that was obviously staring at us all summer," Lombardi said of the hole filled by Mitchell. "and it’s hard to imagine getting a perfect fit like this. His defensive skills are textbook, and I don’t think people appreciate, at times, the fact that he can make plays. He’s underrated in terms of his puck play. If you put that in the mix of our top four, it’s got a real nice blend to it, so I think we’re pretty comfortable right now."

Matt Greene is in the mix as well, although Greene is expected to miss approximately the first month of the season after recovering from shoulder surgery. Even without Greene, coach Terry Murray will not lack for options, and Mitchell should provide a significant upgrade over his comparable counterparts from last season.

In Sean O’Donnell, who signed with Philadelphia last month, the Kings had a stable, veteran leader, but one who struggled when his minutes rose. In Randy Jones, who signed with Tampa Bay on Wednesday, the Kings had a solid puck-mover and skater who could play big minutes but who was prone to major mistakes.

In Mitchell, the Kings hope they have taken some of the best aspects of both players. Mitchell said that he felt a comfortable fit with the Kings and was far less concerned about who his blue-line partner would be for the Oct. 9 season opener. Mitchell laughed when asked if he had started to "campaign" to play with Doughty.

"It’s the coach’s job to do all that," Mitchell said. "As a player, it’s my job to go out there and put my best game on the ice, improve on my game and do whatever is in my power to make myself better and the team better. The coach’s job is to make those decisions, based on what fit he thinks is best for the team and for everyone as a whole."

It’s possible, perhaps even probable, that the Kings will end up with a No. 1 pairing of Doughty and Mitchell, a union of the ultra-talented 20-year-old two-way defenseman and the veteran whose size and smarts would complement Doughty well.

Kings assistant general manager Ron Hextall likes that option, as he told LAKings.com’s Heidi Androl on Wednesday that he envisions Mitchell paired with Doughty, "playing against the (Ryan) Getzlafs and the top centers and top lines on other teams."

On the other hand, the Kings might think twice about breaking up last year’s highly successful pairing of Doughty and Scuderi, in which case Mitchell could end up playing on the left side next to Johnson, who would certainly benefit from having a reliable partner who might allow him to feel more free to expand his offensive game.

There’s yet a third option. How about putting the Kings’ biggest defensemen, Greene (6-foot-3, 227 pounds) and Mitchell (6-3, 205) on the ice at the same time?

"Obviously (Murray) has to make that call," Lombardi said, "but certainly internally, that’s where a pillar like this fits, with a guy like Drew or even a guy like Jack, who, his game after the Olympics really went to another level. Like Scuderi, Willie, like I said, is underestimated with the puck. So that’s usually your traditional hockey mode, that pillar with the young puck-mover, but there are a number of options, too.

"You could also see, late in a game when you’re protecting a one-goal lead, him and Greener would be outstanding together. Or you go into some buildings that are a little tougher than usual, and you’ve got to shut someone down, you could see it going that way. He adds a lot to our arsenal, no question about it."

But wait, there’s more, because the Kings’ "sixth" defensive spot is likely to bring some versatility as well, even though it’s not yet known who will fill the role.

The conservative route would probably find the Kings promoting Davis Drewiske, who played 43 games last season, into a full-time role. Drewiske, though, struggled with consistency at times, and it’s possible that a younger defenseman could break through.

Thomas Hickey, the 2007 first-round pick who has been limited to 26 AHL games in the past two years because of injuries, might be ready, as might Jake Muzzin, who impressed in a late-season AHL role after signing as an undrafted free agent.

Viatcheslav Voynov is on the horizon, but is expected to miss training camp with an injury, and players such as Nicolas Deslauriers and Alec Martinez might get a look. A wild card might be 25-year-old Swedish defenseman Johan Fransson, who spurned the Swedish Elite League and KHL to sign a one-year contract with the Kings.

All of this should make for a lively, competitive training camp, the precursor to what the Kings hope will be an improved defensive unit this season.

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