On Thursday, ESPN's Craig Custance announced that veteran defenseman Willie Mitchell will not be back with the Los Angeles Kings next season. "Unfortunately, no room," was the reason behind the 37-year-old deciding to move on. After all, the Kings did re-sign Marian Gaborik and Matt Greene. That coupled with the team's decision not to buy out the contract Mike Richards leaves Mitchell worth more than the Kings have available.
Despite having just turned 37 in April, Willie Mitchell feels like he still has at least a couple of good years left and while the aforementioned Gaborik was willing to take a pay cut to stay in Los Angeles, Mitchell wasn't as willing - and to be honest, that's no fault of his. Being in the twilight of his career, it is understandable that the native of Port McNeill, British Columbia, wants to make as much money as he can before he retired. With his textbook defensive abilities, you can bet that most of the other 29 teams will be looking to sign him, even if he isn't the biggest name on this summer's free-agent list.
After last summer, fans knew that Rob Scuderi's defensive prowess would be sorely missed and, during the early part of the regular season, it was. But the Kings made due without their defenseman who returned to Pittsburgh and can do the same without Mitchell, eventually.
After missing the entire 2013 season, Willie Mitchell returned to the Los Angeles lineup with a vengeance, leading his team in blocked shots with 128, delivering 102 hits and finishing the regular season with a +14 rating. In 18 games this past postseason, Mitchell blocked 29 shots, dished out 34 hits and proved to be a significant difference in his team's Western Final victory over Chicago, who they had lost to in the 2013 Western Final without the veteran defenseman.
But whether fans elect to let go graciously or be upset that he wants to test the free agent waters, it would be difficult - next-to-impossible even - to imagine even one (much less two) Stanley Cup wins for the Los Angeles Kings without Willie Mitchell.
He was signed by the Kings in late-August of 2010 after the Ilya Kovalchuk drama and the curiosity - even disappointment - of signing Alexei Ponikarovsky. He had been left alone for so many weeks because he had a history of concussions. But Kings' GM Dean Lombardi saw something else in the defenseman and soon, fans in Los Angeles would discover just how valuable Willie Mitchell really was.
In the four years he was in Los Angeles, Willie Mitchell made a difference for a defensive unit that was already on its way to being regarded as the best in hockey.
In the three years he did play for the Kings, Willie Mitchell averaged just over 117 blocked shots during the regular season and 33 during the playoffs. Having him on the ice was a huge asset on the scoresheet as well as Mitchell was a combined +38 during his regular-season career with the Kings and a combined +18 during his postseason stint, which included a +10 in these past playoffs. Even his 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame was used to its advantage if necessary.
Drafted 199th overall by the New Jersey Devils in 1996, Willie Mitchell was never the poster boy for his team or the league, nor was he the topic of water-cooler conversation at the office. But similar to his his draft status, Mitchell came out of nowhere to help the Los Angeles Kings become the team they are today. They may have been on their way before Mitchell but once he got there, the Los Angeles Kings elevated themselves to a higher echelon.
While he did have success in New Jersey, Minnesota, Vancouver and, for a brief period, Dallas, it was in Los Angeles where Willie Mitchell became a champion. Signed when no one else wanted him, the 37-year-old was the epitome of "the unsung hero" with the Kings - and fans have loved him for everything he has contributed, even if it didn't land him in the limelight.
But if this is truly the end of Willie Mitchell's tenure in Los Angeles, I - nay, we - say thank you. He will be sorely missed but thanks to his accomplishments, the Los Angeles Kings have won two Stanley Cups and are on the precipice of winning more. That just wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for Willie Mitchell.
Whichever team is lucky enough to acquire his services, I will wish Mitchell the best of luck. But as far as I am concerned, given everything he has done for this team and their loyal fanbase, Willie Mitchell will always be, in the hearts of so many, a Los Angeles King.