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Mitchell Returns Favor

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings
Two years ago, the Kings showed faith in Willie Mitchell. Last month, he returned the favor.

The Kings took a chance on Mitchell, who had been recovering from serious concussion issues, when they signed him to a two-year contract in the summer of 2010. With that contract set to expire in a couple months, Mitchell, a valued stay-at-home defenseman, could have once again tested the free-agent market.

Few would have blamed him. Mitchell, who turns 35 next month, is still chasing his first Stanley Cup, and of late the Kings have been fighting merely to get into the top eight in the Western Conference.

Would Mitchell weigh his options, and then cherry-pick a team that seemed closest to winning the Cup?

In Mitchell’s mind, he did, but he didn’t wait until the summer. On Feb. 24, Mitchell signed a two-year contract extension to stay with the Kings. A partnership that started two years ago, amid a series of raised eyebrows, will continue, a partnership that Mitchell believes will include a long-sought championship.

``At the time, I felt that L.A. was a good and up-and-coming team, and that hasn’t changed for me,’’ Mitchell said this week. ``I felt they wanted me to be a big part of it, which is an obligation I have to fill, with my performance. That hasn’t changed either.

``From my chats with Dean (Lombardi, general manager), he was pretty happy with bringing me here and what I brought to the team. That was a big reason behind signing for another two. It was a good fit for him, he felt, and it was a good fit for me, so here we are. I think it’s a real strong group.’’

Mitchell is a big reason for that. In two seasons, he has averaged nearly 22 minutes of ice time per game, has been a valued member of the Kings’ strong penalty-kill unit -- and sometimes even a member of the power-play unit -- and has a plus-17 rating in 124 regular-season games.

Moreover, Mitchell, as the Kings’ oldest player, is a good-natured and trusted voice in the locker room and a stable defensive partner on the ice. The Kings’ trust in Mitchell is evident in the fact that his defensive partners have often been far younger and less experienced: Slava Voynov, Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson.

For all he brings to the table, the Kings have been happy to pay Mitchell his annual salary of $3.5 million. Two years ago, not everyone was convinced that would end up being the case.

In the summer of 2010, Mitchell remained an unrestricted free agent in August. He hadn’t played since January when, as a member of the Vancouver Canucks, he took a big hit from Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin and suffered a concussion. Mitchell didn’t even return to the ice until the season had been completed.

Mitchell, simply put, was damaged goods. A handful of teams offered one-year contracts, even though Mitchell had been cleared to play and, to prove his health, had gone through a series of workouts with teams.

The Kings, though, were apparently the only team to offer Mitchell a two-year contract.

That confidence, plus Mitchell’s affinity for the West Coast -- he’s a British Columbia native -- led Mitchell to join the Kings. Mitchell said the Kings’ trust in him then, when he appeared to be in dire straits, factored into his decision to forego free agency this summer.

Call it, perhaps, a bit of mutual loyalty.

``For sure, everything plays into it,’’ Mitchell said. ``There’s loyalty. There’s the business side of it too. They run a business and us, as players, yes we play a game but we still run a business. You’re still your own enterprise. It’s not like you sit there and say, `OK, I’m going to play here for half the price.’ Does that happen? Very rarely, and I think if you see it happen, it’s really, really twilight (part of the career) for players. You see that with players in the 38-to-40 range. Maybe I’m an example of a guy like that, or a guy like O.D. [Sean O’Donnell].

``I think stay-at-home defensemen are pretty hot commodities, even later in their careers, because they can play a lot longer. But you see, sometimes, that guys like that will hand-pick where they go, just to have a shot at winning. Or maybe it’s because their wife is from that area, or they like that area. So yeah, lots goes into it. Of course, you want to be somewhere where you’re wanted, and that’s why I signed here. Yeah, they gave me a second year. It was important at the time for me.’’

While Mitchell has suffered a couple nagging injuries in the past two seasons, as most players do, he has been free from any type of concussion issues. That has allowed him to thrive, first as a partner for Doughty and then to Voynov, who has stepped into the Kings’ lineup this season and looked instantly comfortable.

That’s a credit to Mitchell, a reliable partner who has taken some personal pride in Voynov’s development.

``I feel comfortable,’’ Mitchell said. ``It’s been a little more different than it’s been previously in my career. Not that I don’t play against top guys, but I kind of play against the second line. Maybe thats part of evolving in your career, or the evolution of your career. Now I’m playing with younger guys, and I’m kind of there to be a safety net for the younger players. Not that I have wisdom, but on the D side of the puck I like to think that I make decent reads there, and I can try to pass those on to the younger guys. That’s been a good experience for me. It’s been a lot of fun. It has made me focus on things that I do, on the defensive side of the puck, a little bit more, which is a good thing because those are my strengths.’’

They’re serving the Kings well. Of late, the Kings’ offense has come alive a bit, but the backbone of the team will always be its ability to keep the puck out of its own net. For much of this season, that hasn’t been the Kings’ problem, as they have consistently ranked in the top five in goals-against per game.

Yet this season hasn’t been easy for the Kings, who figure to be fighting for a playoff spot into the final week of the regular season.

That didn’t deter Mitchell from once again tying his future to the Kings.

``Right now is what it’s all about,’’ Mitchell said. ``I’ve been saying to a couple of the guys, I’m 34, the oldest guy on our team. I still think I’ve got quite a few years ahead of me yet, but you don’t know how many chances you’re going to get, so this time of year is just a fun, special time. Because all you have to do is get in. Once you get in, you’ve got as good a shot as anyone. Especially with our group. I really like our group. We’re a big, strong team that is starting to use our speed a little bit more. You can feel the room coming together. We’ve got a lot of work to do. If we get in, we can be a pretty scary team and we’ve got a shot at it all.

``I know people can say we underachieved a little bit early on this year, not scoring goals, but hey, we’re right there for the division lead. What everyone thought we would do is win the division, or have a shot at competing, and, well, we’re still there. That’s where we’re at. It’s been a lot of fun. I enjoy the West Coast and I’m familiar with the teams out here too. You look at everything. You can always reach out for more money, but do you want to go play on a weaker team, in a weaker environment?’’
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