It’s not you, it’s me. You are great, I just need someone younger.
That is the National Hockey League free agency style of a heartbreaking breakup. The NHL’s free agency started on Tuesday, July 1, 2014 and among those that were on the market was two time Stanley Cup Champion Willie Mitchell of the Los Angeles Kings.
As a key defenseman, Mitchell did everything the Kings have asked him to do, and then some. The 37-year-old defender spends a majority of his time clearing the front of the net and blocking shots. A critical and difficult responsibility. Mitchell’s thankless tasks allowed the Kings to win multiple games during Mitchell’s four year tenure, resulting in two Stanley Cups.
Given Mitchell’s age, combined with the King’s salary cap situation, and the desire to instill youth on the blue line, his presence with the team came to an end on Monday, June 30, 2014, as the team decided not to offer the free agent a new two year contract. There is no doubt that the management team, Darryl Sutter and Dean Lombardi would have loved to offer Mitchell a new contract.
However, keeping Mitchell on the team would not have been in the King’s best interests, both in the short and in the long term. With prospects such as Brayden McNabb and Derek Forbort in the system, the Kings will work to find a replacement from within. This, along with the re-signing of fellow defenseman Matt Greene, created an excess of defenseman, leaving Mitchell out. That is the reality of business in hockey. Decisions are made based on the bottom line more than emotional opinions.
Despite his age, Mitchell was a sought after commodity on the free agent market. On July 1, when free agency opened, the Florida Panthers inked an $8.5 million-two year contract with Mitchell. Feeling encouraged by the financial backing of their new owner Vinnie Viola, the Panthers were aggressive during the start of free agency to make moves for immediate help. The Panthers are eager to infuse the veteran defenseman’s presence to aid in the development of their youth players, just like the Kings did four years ago.
“We like our team. We like what happed on July 1. We pretty well hit everything that we wanted to hit on, addressed a lot of our needs, and brought in a lot of character. We brought in champions and good solid pros who are going to show our young guys the way. So overall, it’s been a great month for us,” Panthers’ General Manager Dale Tallon said in a statement.
Mitchell had a strong season, scoring 12 points (a plus-14 with one goal and 11 assists) in 76 regular season games, but it was his postseason performance that drew a lot of attention. He was unwavering en route to winning the Stanley Cup and has been rewarded with $4.5 million per year. As a Panther, Mitchell is reunited with goalie Robert Luongo, who he played with during his time with the Vancouver Canucks.
The Panthers finished the 2013-2014 season in 29th place out of 30, with 66 points, and have not won a playoff series since going to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996. The 2013-2014 season was the Panthers’ second-worst record in the regular season, missing the playoffs for the 12th time in the past 13 seasons. It has been a tough road, but maybe with the signing of Mitchell, a new era in the sunshine state has begun.
The offseason game plan looks at a Panthers club that has a mix of aging veterans, untested young players and very few players in their prime years. Mitchell’s addition to the team made a clear improvement to the Panthers roster. The Panthers best players right now are 35-year-old Luongo, soon to be 35-year-old defenseman Brian Campbell, and now 37-year-old Mitchell. With Tallon looking to build the new team around youngsters Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, and the NHL Draft 2014 No. 1 overall pick, Aaron Ekblad, the Panthers’ success is expected to come very soon.
Tallon is well aware that it will take a few years before the teams’ young players develop and become dominate players in the league. But with the Panthers making a big splash by signing Mitchell there is definitely a determination to improve on the overall wins for the 2014-2015 season. For a team that has made the playoffs once in this century the urgency to win in the near future is expected to come sooner rather than later.