Willie Mitchell is one of the best defensive defensemen in hockey. All it took was 719 NHL regular season games, 71 NHL postseason games, and stops in New Jersey, Minnesota, Dallas, Vancouver, and Los Angeles for most people to find out. Wherever he has gone in his hockey career, he has brought with him an insatiable will to win, a quiet confidence in his abilities, a tenacity to defend his own goal, and a really long hockey stick.
To his teammates, he is a defensive rock and a calming presence on the ice. To the goaltenders that play behind him, he is a safety net. To his coaches, he is a player they can lean on in difficult situations. To the media, he is a breath of fresh air in a sport full of scripted answers and clichés. To opponents, he is a physical and formidable foe. And most importantly, he is now a Stanley Cup Champion.
He is finally receiving the credit he has so long deserved for being one of the elite shutdown defensemen in a sport that glorifies beautiful goals, hard hits, and dazzling saves. His stick positioning is as good as Steven Stamkos’s wrist shot, Pekka Rinne’s glove, or Sidney Crosby’s backhand, but you won’t find clips of his defensive abilities on the highlight reels.
In the NCAA, he emerged as an intimidating two-way force while with the Clarkson Golden Knights from 1997 to 1999. He dominated with his skating, consistent physicality, and a rocket slap shot. With the New Jersey Devils (the team that drafted him 199th overall in 1996), he earned a crash-course PhD in defense from the likes of Larry Robinson, Scott Stevens, and Scott Niedermayer. In Minnesota his schooling continued, this time from head coach and defensive mastermind Jacques Lemaire. Mitchell played a huge role in the underdog Wild’s run to the Western Conference Final in 2002-03, and his taming of Todd Bertuzzi left an unforgettable impression on fans in Vancouver.
Born and raised in British Columbia, Mitchell came home to play for the Canucks in 2006. For the first time in his career, his salary reflected his ability ($14 million over four seasons) as one of the best defensemen in the NHL. Mitchell’s signing was announced a few days after the Roberto Luongo acquisition from Florida, and the two would remain closely linked for the next four seasons, forming the team’s defensive backbone. Mitchell suffered a devastating concussion in his final year (2009-10) with the Canucks, and heading into that offseason his health was in question, and his career in jeopardy. The Canucks were admittedly reluctant to go beyond one year with a new contract. After emerging fully healthy from a torturous battle with post-concussion symptoms, Mitchell wanted more job security.
Enter Dean Lombardi and the Los Angeles Kings. Lombardi recognized that his young team was only a few pieces away from contending with the top teams in the Western Conference. In April of that year, the Kings had been bounced in the first round by the Canucks. Even with the early playoff exit, the season was a successful one for Los Angeles. Jonathan Quick was emerging as a star goaltender, and Drew Doughty was a game breaker at 20. Up front, Lombardi had amassed a group of young forwards with considerable upside, led by Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown. Lombardi loosely pursued free agent Ilya Kovalchuk that summer, but didn’t want to mortgage valuable salary cap space by making the talented Russian $100 million richer.
Signing Mitchell was a significant risk, but there was considerable upside to the move. He brought with him a wealth of experience to a team desperate for it. Lombardi hoped that Mitchell would provide mentorship to his young defensemen, especially after witnessing numerous defensive meltdowns at the end of the 2009-10 season (Los Angeles gave up three-or-more goals in five of the six games against the Canucks).
Fast forward less than two years. Mitchell has gone from a player wondering if he would ever lace up the skates again to Stanley Cup Champion. Dean Lombardi has gone from a general manager stuck in a perpetual rebuild to the mastermind who built arguably the most formidable roster in the league.
The pride of Port McNeill, British Columbia, a hard working community on the northern tip of Vancouver Island, is now the toast of the town in Los Angeles. The journey to the destination was not an easy one, though.
A Golden Knight
As a prospect, Mitchell was an offensive force from the blue line, but his time in New Jersey and Minnesota laid the groundwork for a career as a defensive specialist. He arrived at Clarkson in the fall of 1997 coming off of an impressive season with the Melfort Mustangs of the SJHL.
In 1996-97, Mitchell was named as the Top Defenseman in Saskatchewan’s best Junior A league after tallying 14 goals, 56 points, and 227 PIM in 64 games.
During a three-year college career as a Golden Knight, Mitchell was one of the best defensemen in the ECAC (Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference). As a freshman, he was selected as Conference Rookie of the Year (he shared the award with teammate Erik Cole), finishing with a 26 points. He led the team in power play goals with six.
In his sophomore season he recorded 29 points, including 10 goals. Mitchell was named a First-Team ECAC All-Star and ECAC All-Tournament MVP. He led the Golden Knights to a championship title, scoring one of the most dramatic goals in school history.
Is that Dan Cloutier in goal for Princeton?
Mitchell had nothing left to prove at the college level, and opted to turn professional after his sophomore season, signing a contract with the Devils.
A Devil of a Time
Mitchell arrived in New Jersey at a special time for the franchise. He spent the majority of the 1999-00 season with their AHL affiliate in Albany, but got to suit up for two games with the eventual Stanley Cup Champions. Mitchell played most of 2000-01 with Albany as well, but he again spent a brief amount of time with the Devils. His third game in the NHL came on opening night in 2000-01, and he was given a firsthand view of the team raising the Stanley Cup banner. Mitchell’s tenure New Jersey wasn’t a long one, but he was able to learn from some of the greatest defensemen in NHL history.
“I tried to learn from the guys before me, guys who spent a lot of time in the league. I was fortunate enough to start in one of the best environments ever with the Devils – Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Larry Robinson, Jacques Lemaire; I could go on and on…. I tried to learn from those guys.”
Mitchell was traded to the expansion Minnesota Wild in 2001, reuniting with Lemaire. To say the Wild struggled that season would be putting it mildly (their top scorer was Scott Pellerin, and the team featured notables such as Maxim Sushinski, Ladislav Bensyek, and Roman Simicek). The season wasn’t a wasted one for Mitchell, though. He received arguably the most important advice of his young career.
“My first year in Minnesota I had a really good game against Detroit. I scored the tying goal; it was a great game. Jacques Lemaire’s coaching and next day he calls me into his office.
I think I’m going to get the old pat on the back, but Jacques says: Four or five chances for? Pretty good, pretty good. Four or five chances against? Not so good. Not so good. Four or five chances for Willie Mitchell, and four or five chances for Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, and Brett Hull. Who is going to score more goals?”
Lemaire’s point resonated with Mitchell. He knew he was much more valuable to his team when he was preventing goals instead of trying to score them. Lemaire’s advice didn’t end there.
“You’re big and strong, you’re a really good skater for a big man. If you expend your energy in the [defensive] part of the rink, you’ll play in this league a long time and make more money than I ever did.”
“Ever since that point, I’ve focused my energy on playing defense and it was one of the best lessons I ever had.”
Mitchell spent parts of five seasons in the Minnesota organization. He scored only nine goals as a member of the Wild, wisely choosing the path offered to him by Lemaire.
Up to that point in his career, Mitchell was a household name only in Minnesota and Port McNeill, but the 2002-03 postseason run quickly changed that. In particular, the war he waged with Todd Bertuzzi and the heavily favored Vancouver Canucks in the second round brought with it a whole new level of notoriety. To Canucks fans, he was the bearded, stick-wielding menace who hid behind a jaw protector (Mitchell had suffered a broken jaw earlier in the series from a mammoth Bertuzzi hit). To Bertuzzi, Mitchell was a huge thorn in his side. Bertuzzi decimated the St. Louis Blues in the first round to the point where their defensemen didn’t want to engage him in any sort of physical confrontation. Mitchell not only refused to back down, but he gave the league’s most dominant forward all he could handle.
The Wild emerged as victors in seven games, thanks to solid defense, balanced scoring, and Dan Cloutier. They lost to the JS Giguere (and the rest of the Anaheim Ducks, still Mighty at the time) in the Conference Final, but Mitchell’s coming out party was complete.
He spent three more years in Minnesota, but the team traded him at the 2006 deadline to Dallas. Mitchell was looking for a significant raise from the $1 million he was earning at the time, and the Wild weren’t prepared to give it to him. “He’s a product of Lemaire’s system,” said many Minnesota fans.
The Dallas Stars liked Mitchell a lot (in fact, their offer to him that summer was for more money than the contract he ended up signing with the Canucks), but Mitchell had turned his focus elsewhere. After only a few discussions with Canucks GM Dave Nonis, Mitchell was ready to come home. And what a return it turned out to be.
Beautiful British Columbia
The Canucks introduced Mitchell to the fan base at the same time as the newly-acquired Luongo. The Mitchell signing was a curious one to some in Vancouver at the time, as the Canucks had lost Ed Jovanovski to Phoenix as a free agent. Mitchell, the physical and reliable defenseman, hardly seemed like an adequate replacement for the dynamic Jovanovski.
Mitchell brought with him a focus on the defensive craft not seen in Vancouver in a long time. He quickly emerged as the top shutdown defenseman on the team. He logged heavy minutes on the penalty kill, and was matched up against the top opposing forwards each night. It wasn’t a coincidence that the team emerged as one of the best in the league during Mitchell’s four seasons.
|Season||Corsi Relative QoC||Rank on VAN||Offensive zone start %||Rank on VAN|
Corsi Relative Quality of Competition: This is the weighted relative Corsi number of a player’s opponents. The Corsi number tracks how well a player performs in terms of puck possession, and is calculated by taking Shots on Target For + Missed Shots For + Blocked Shots Against minus Shots on Target Against + Missed Shots Against + Blocked Shots For. The better a player, the higher the Corsi number.
Offensive Zone Start %: The percentage of shifts that a player starts in the offensive zone. Players are often “sheltered” by being given a higher percentage of offensive zone starts. Not the case for Mitchell.
In Mitchell’s four seasons with the Canucks, he played the toughest minutes among all defensemen (Behind the Net doesn’t have statistics available for the 2006-07 season).
He also was last (or close to) among all Canucks defensemen in terms of offensive zone starts. In 2007-08, his 37.6% offensive zone starts placed him second lowest in the entire league, trailing only former teammate Nick Schultz in Minnesota.
The Canucks relied on Mitchell to do the heavy lifting, and he excelled at it. He set a career high with 23 points in 2008-09, given a bit more of an offensive responsibility. He formed Vancouver’s top defensive pairing with Kevin Bieksa, who scored 11 goals and added 43 points that season.
|Frequency||Strength||2008-09 Defensive Pairings|
|29.00%||EV||3 BIEKSA,KEVIN – 8 MITCHELL,WILLIE|
|24.57%||EV||8 MITCHELL,WILLIE – 6 SALO,SAMI|
|10.07%||EV||8 MITCHELL,WILLIE – 55 O’BRIEN,SHANE|
All numbers are courtesy of DobberHockey’s Frozen Pool tools.
When the Canucks needed a late game stop, he was paired with equally-steady veteran Sami Salo.
2008-09 also marked the first time he suited up for all 82 games in a season. In Minnesota and Dallas he played 70 or more games only twice. With the Canucks, Mitchell averaged only 67 games played for his first two seasons.
In his first season with the Canucks, he suffered a concussion from a Jason Arnott body check. Mitchell had to contend with the lingering effects of the hit for a little while, and it was unfortunately a sign of things to come.
“Sometimes when you’re having conversations with people, it can be a lot of work. You get headaches and a kind of queasy sick-to-your-stomach feeling.”
Mitchell was back playing in a few weeks, and showed no ill effects from the hit. That season the Canucks made it out of the first round for the first time since facing the Wild back in 2003.
The first round series against the Dallas Stars was one of Mitchell’s best stretches of hockey as a Canuck. He did a fantastic job against the Stars best forwards, as the Canucks were shut out three times by Marty Turco but still managed to win the best-of-seven series. Mitchell and Luongo continued to provide the last line of defense behind a very mediocre group of forwards.
The last line of defense, even behind Luongo.
Mitchell used a stick much longer than most players (and he still does today), and this allowed him to keep bigger gaps on opposing forwards, disrupting more passes and poking more pucks away. If fantasy hockey pools find a way to record plays disrupted with a stick, Mitchell would become a valuable commodity (especially now with Nick Lidstrom retired).
“When I have my gap [defending an opposing forward], I hold my stick real close to my body, so it looks like there’s a lot of ice in front of me. The forward wants to make his move as close to the defenceman as possible because he wants the defenceman to bite so [the forward] can go around him. They come in to make a move — they take the candy — but then I move my stick out and poke the puck away. On a rush, that’s how I play it.”
The one downside to Mitchell’s choice of stick length was that it negatively affected his offense. His stick handling, passing, and shooting all suffered, as it took him longer to move the puck and to shoot it thanks to the extra few inches of stick he used. He was still able to show off the slap shot from time to time, though.
Mitchell was a candidate to be named Captain in the summer of 2008 (and in retrospect the team probably wishes it had chosen him instead of Roberto Luongo). His work in the community and passion to use his fame for good didn’t go unnoticed. And on the ice, his reputation as a premier shutdown defenseman was inarguable.
His rivalry with Jarome Iginla was a compelling side story each time the Canucks and Flames faced off. Mitchell thrived going up against physical, skilled forwards. He also emerged as one of the best quotes on the team, and never failed to see the humour in many situations (much to the delight of those not named Mike Keenan).
The back story: Keenan had mentioned that he thought Mitchell was playing with an illegal stick. The next time Mitchell faced Keenan’s Flames, he had a special stick constructed for the warm up.
Almost three-and-a-half years after the Arnott hit, Mitchell sustained another concussion. This time, he was driven head first into the boards by Pittsburgh star Evgeni Malkin during a game in January of 2010. The road to recovery wasn’t so easy this time.
Mitchell never played another game for the Canucks, missing the rest of the regular season and playoffs. The post-concussion symptoms forced him to retreat to his cabin in a remote part of the province, as even the basic aspects of living in a busy city were too much for him.
“In the first stage of my recovery I couldn’t even watch games, just because of the whole emotional aspect of a concussion injury. It’s not like you hurt a knee… you’ve injured you brain.”
He finally broke his silence after the Canucks were defeated in the second round by Chicago, and he didn’t hold back at all. In typical Willie Mitchell fashion, he spoke his mind.
“I am disappointed in the league; I’m disappointed in Colin Campbell. I am disappointed he didn’t rule down anything on the way. That’s his job. As we’ve seen, he’s been very inconsistent in how he’s handled himself in those situations. I think a lot of times he hands down suspensions and fines on results. I think that’s the wrong thing to do.”
If you rob a bank and there’s 50 million dollars in there, you rob a bank and there’s five bucks in there, you’re going to jail for the same amount of time. He saw me get up off the ice so he didn’t make any ruling on it. I’m not saying this for me. What’s this going to do for me now? No one’s going to take back the last four-and-a-half months that I’ve endured and my family’s endured. Why I’m saying this right now is because my friends in the league… I don’t want anyone to go through what I just did.”
I just want to be healthy. I will be. I’m doing all the right things to get healthy and I’m just worried about that process.”
The Canucks were unwilling to go past one year on a new deal for Mitchell. Looking back, Canucks GM Mike Gillis was apprehensive about Mitchell’s health.
“He didn’t look normal, physically. His eyes. His mannerisms. It wasn’t the same Willie that we knew. He looked different. He didn’t start looking normal until I saw him in the summertime.”
The Kings Come Calling
The Kings were the only team willing to give Mitchell some long term security. San Jose and Washington offered more money on a one-year deal, but Mitchell had shown in the past that he wasn’t one to chase the money.
Los Angeles had no way of knowing whether his concussion issues were a thing of the past, but Dean Lombardi was more than willing to take the risk and find out.
“There is risk with any player you sign. When we got Jarret Stoll, [he] had already been through two concussions.”
Lombardi looked beyond the risk to the upside of having Mitchell in Los Angeles.
“It was a huge hole, something that was obviously staring at us all summer, and it’s hard to imagine getting a perfect fit like this. His defensive skills are textbook, and I don’t think people appreciate… the fact that he can make plays. He’s underrated in terms of his puck play.”
Mitchell loved the fit with the Kings and the potential that the team possessed.
“I got the felling they thought I would be a really good fit. For me, it was a chance to be a part of a young, up-and-coming team that had a long of great things going. Hopefully, I can’t fit in that and with my experience in the league and help get the team to another level.”
Willie’s first season with the Kings was a significant transition. His health was no longer an issue, but his heart was still back home in British Columbia.
“In my first year here my heart and mind were essentially still in Vancouver…. Everyone knew I loved playing for my hometown team.”
Mitchell felt like more than just an onlooker when the Canucks marched all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2011.
“That wasn’t easy for me to watch… when Vancouver made their great run, because in a way, I felt or thought I felt a part of it.”
Mitchell came into the 2011-12 with the Kings with a renewed sense of optimism. The team had made the postseason in 2010-11, losing in six games to the San Jose Sharks. However, their young core was beginning to show signs of taking the next step.
“I’m really excited about this year and what’s ahead of us. I don’t want to get too far down the road. If we win our division, we get to where we want to be and that’s in the playoffs. Once we get there, our next step is, obviously, the big prize.”
The team performed well below expectations for much of the first half of the season. Jonathan Quick was playing brilliant hockey, but the players in front of him were unable to score with any regularity. Lombardi sensed that his talented team needed a shake up. First, he brought Darryl Sutter in to coach, replacing Terry Murray. Lombardi and Sutter had previously worked together in San Jose, and Lombardi was familiar with the impact Sutter could have on a dressing room.
Mitchell and the rest of the Kings thrived under the demanding Sutter.
“When he got here we found he is organized and makes good adjustments on the go. A coach is really important with teams now.”
A few months later, the team made a significant splash, acquiring Jeff Carter from the Columbus Blue Jackets. The trade was made for a few reasons. One, the Kings wanted to add more offense (Carter had scored 33-or-more goals three times previously), and two, they felt that defenseman Jack Johnson was expendable. Johnson’s defensive game was a work in progress, and the team was really happy with the development of rookie Slava Voynov.
Mitchell and Voynov had first been paired together at training camp, and they immediately clicked. Mitchell’s ability to read the game defensively worked well with Voynov’s puck moving prowess.
The Kings trusted the reliable Mitchell to be the defensive partner for all of their talented rookies. In his two seasons with Los Angeles, he has played almost exclusively with Doughty, Johnson, or Voynov.
|Frequency||Strength||2010-11 Defensive Pairings|
|51.41%||EV||8 DOUGHTY,DREW – 33 MITCHELL,WILLIE|
|12.47%||EV||3 JOHNSON,JACK – 33 MITCHELL,WILLIE|
|Frequency||Strength||2011-12 Defensive Pairings|
|40.97%||EV||33 MITCHELL,WILLIE – 26 VOYNOV,SLAVA|
|14.25%||EV||8 DOUGHTY,DREW – 33 MITCHELL,WILLIE|
|13.76%||EV||3 JOHNSON,JACK – 33 MITCHELL,WILLIE|
Mitchell played the role of mentor in Vancouver, too. He was instrumental in Kevin Bieksa becoming one of the better two-way defensemen in the league. Lombardi correctly identified Mitchell’s ability to help with the development of young defensemen, and he was rewarded, particularly with Voynov’s surprising emergence as a top-four defenseman.
His role with Los Angeles was largely the same as the one he had filled with Vancouver. There are a few important differences to note, though.
|Season||PK TOI||PP TOI||Corsi Relative QoC||Rank on team||Offensive zone start %||Rank on team|
Mitchell played almost five minutes per game on the penalty kill in 2006-07. Across the league, only Derian Hatcher (5:37 per game) and Adam Foote (4:58 per game) played more.
In the next three seasons, Mitchell’s role on the Canucks was very consistent. He logged an average of 4:15 per game on the PK, and 0:17 on the PP. He played the toughest minutes among any Canuck defensemen for those three seasons.
After joining the Kings, Mitchell saw his PK time drop by about a minute per game (Matt Greene and Rob Scuderi were both acquired for their penalty killing ability). In his first season with the Kings, Mitchell played an average of six seconds of PP time per game. He played the toughest minutes of all Kings defensemen that season as well, and his zone starts (45.6%) was the lowest among all Kings defensemen.
In 2011-12, Mitchell set a career high in points with 24. Why? Well, he averaged a shift per game on the power play (42 seconds) – significantly higher than any of his previous seasons. He saw the third hardest minutes among Kings defensemen, as his new role of mentoring Voynov meant that the toughest minutes were given to the Doughty-Scuderi pairing. He started over half of his shifts on the offensive zone, which was the fourth highest total among Kings defensemen.
Mitchell had proven in college that he was a capable offensive defenseman. Jacques Lemaire told him to focus on the defense, and he had done just that for much of his career. However, given more offensive opportunities at the age of 35, Mitchell showed he could find a way to balance scoring and defending.
Stanley Cup Champion
Much will be written of the dominant postseason run by the Kings. Not your typical eighth seed, the Kings were showing all the signs of being a formidable playoff opponent long before April began. They had been backstopped by arguably the most impressive goaltender during the regular season in Quick. Their defensive group had terrific balance between size and strength (Mitchell, Matt Greene, and Rob Scuderi) and youth and mobility (Alec Martinez, Doughty, and Voynov). Up front, they had three lines capable of scoring, and enough size to make the 1990s Philadelphia Flyers jealous.
In Round 1, they came in and stole two games from the heavily-favored Canucks, and Mitchell featured prominently. He did his part to shut down one of the best offensive attacks in the league, and even found the time to rip home a power play goal. Canuck fans (and players, too) probably did a double take. Mitchell and power play goal were the most unlikely of combinations during his tenure as a Canuck (unless the word prevented was put in between).
His stellar play continued through three rounds as the Kings made quick work of the St. Louis Blues, Phoenix Coyotes, and finally the New Jersey Devils.
The respect that the Kings players had for Mitchell was obvious. He was the second player to hoist the Cup after captain Dustin Brown.
The pride of Port McNeill doesn’t have to dream up fantasy parade routes any more. Asked the question during his tenure with the Canucks, Mitchell shared his thoughts on what he would do.
“You couldn’t even have a parade [in Vancouver], it would be too crazy. The best thing you could do would be to go on a boat around False Creek and English Bay and Coal Harbour. There would be people everywhere.”
Something tells me the Cup will be making an important stop on Vancouver Island, but you can bet Vancouverites would turn out in full force to cheer on Mitchell if he decided to make his dream a reality.
Less than two years after his hockey playing career was in jeopardy, Mitchell hoisted the trophy that had first captured his imagination as a boy, and again during his rookie season with the New Jersey Devils. At that time he probably didn’t think it would take him four more teams and 11 more seasons to see the Stanley Cup again.
“As a kid you play how many road-hockey games playing for [the Cup]. I’m just going to enjoy it. I had a time there where I didn’t know if hockey was even going to continue for that matter. It allows me to enjoy it that much more.”
And with a fresh two-year contract extension in his back pocket, and a Kings team returning their entire group of core players for 2012-13, Mitchell may have to plan a few more parade routes in the coming years.
He came in to the league as a big and mobile defenseman with a lot of positive attributes. He could skate and shoot, but it was thanks to Jacques Lemaire that Mitchell started down a path that has brought him hockey’s ultimate prize. He sacrificed goals, assists, and some money along the way, but I’d say he made the right choice.
And if you asked Mitchell, I think he would agree.