When Rob Scuderi left Los Angeles to return to Pittsburgh last summer, a piece of the Kings' solid defensive core was missing. Even during the first couple months of the season, Scuderi's defensive prowess was sorely missed. But, as time went on, the Kings found their footing on the back end and proceeded to become the defensive-minded team they are so notorious for being. As an example, the Kings finished the regular season with a league-best 2.05 goals-against-per-game while their 26.2 shots-against-per-game left them with the second-lowest total in the entire league behind only the New Jersey Devils. But while the likes of Doughty, Voynov and Regehr have all contributed to Los Angeles's success on the back end, no one has been more valuable to the silver-and-black's defensive play than Willie Mitchell.
In 76 games this past regular season, the 37-year-old MItchell blocked a grand total of 128 shots, tops on his team. Robyn Regehr, who finished second in said category, blocked 96. Also, while he didn't lead his team in this category, Mitchell was able to use his 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame to his advantage by dishing out 102 hits, which was good enough for 11th on his team. The fact that the 12 different Kings hit triple-digits in hits this season speaks volumes of the team's intense physicality - and Mr. Mitchell has continually proven that he's not afraid to chip in said way if it means success for his team.
But as the playoffs get deeper, Willie Mitchell, like many of his teammates, seem to just play better with each passing game.
While his 29 hits and 19 blocked shots thus far don't exactly jump off the page, the veteran consistently proves to be a stalwart on Los Angeles's already-ferocious blueline.
He may not be the most reliable to defenseman to score a goal but that isn't to say that the effort isn't there. In fact, en route to his team's Game 1 over the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday, Willie Mitchell led the way with five shots - the most by any player from either team. Also en route to their win on Wednesday, Mitchell made a number of key defensive plays including rushing back to his own end to intercept the puck from a streaking Rick Nash late in regulation. Perhaps in the future, Mr. Nash will think twice before attempting to hot-dog around an old pro.
But what has made Mitchell stand out the most in these playoffs has been his exceptional penalty-killing.
In Game 1, the veteran logged 4:14 on the penalty-kill (the most on his team), significantly attributed to the Kings' ability to kill off all three penalties against them. Overall in these playoffs while Mitchell was on the ice, opposing teams were only able to manage two power-play goals. When you put that number next to the 22 playoffs games the Kings have played thus far, the penalty-killing efficiency looks nothing short of exceptional.
On top of the aforementioned, Mitchell leads all Kings' defensemen with a +7 rating. While not everyone looks at the plus/minus category with a great deal of seriousness, I believe it is one stat that cannot be taken lightly. After all, Willie Mitchell has the numbers to make his plus/minus total look rather secondary - but still important. Let us not forget that the Kings have had to make due without their other blue-collar defenseman, Robyn Regehr, since Game 1 of the Western Semi-Final versus Anaheim. All the Kings have done since that time is eliminate the President Trophy-winning Ducks and then the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks ad while many of the Kings deserve their due, it is simply impossible to overlook the unsung Mitchell.
After bowing out to the Blackhawks in last year's West Final, many have wondered what went wrong for the Los Angeles Kings. They were a beat-up bunch, yes, but they did go without the services of Willie Mitchell who sat out the entire season with a knee injury. This season just goes to show how much better the Kings are with No. 33 in the lineup.
A pending unrestricted free agent this summer, Willie Mitchell has spent arguably the greatest part of his playing career over the last four years in Southern California. He has been just as instrumental this season for the Kings as he was during their glorious championship in 2012 and while he is getting up there in age, members of the Kingdom are not willing to part with Mr. Mitchell just yet - and who can blame them?
In hindsight, it is still amazing that Willie Mitchell was still available on the free-agent market in late-August of 2010 before GM Dean Lombardi and the Kings came calling. What was the summer of (what seemed like) an endless pursuit of Ilya Kovalchuk left the Kingdom feeling disappointed that nothing came of the chase for the Russian sniper. But weeks later, Mitchell was signed when most had all but forgotten about who was left available.
There really is no need to describe what Willie Mitchell contributed to his new team upon signing because it is common knowledge.
Should the Los Angeles Kings reach their ultimate goal at this series end, however, the heated discussion of who will win the Conn Smythe as the postseason's Most Valuable Player will be inevitable - and while names like Gaborik, Kopitar, Carter and Doughty all deserve to be the front-runners, Willie Mitchell's name definitely deserves to be mentioned in the same breath. He may be underrated and underappreciated (to outsiders) but Willie Mitchell is just as valuable a commodity to the Los Angeles Kings as any of the aforementioned - and the vast success of the Los Angeles Kings over the last few years would have been much more difficult to come by had it not been for Mr. Mitchell.