The Los Angeles Kings didn’t exactly make a splash when free agency opened on Tuesday. With a balanced, well-constructed roster, they didn’t need to.
Indeed, the rest of the Western Conference has been trying to catch up to the reigning champions so far this offseason by looking to match L.A.’s strength at center. Anaheim dealt for Ryan Kesler, Dallas acquired Jason Spezza, St. Louis nabbed Paul Stastny and pivot-starved Chicago took a flier on Brad Richards.
Despite these developments, the Kings remain unparalleled down the middle on account of their four-headed monster comprised of Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Jarret Stoll.
Nevertheless, general manager Dean Lombardi had some business to attend to, and he took care of it wisely to start the free-agency period.
Cutting Willie Mitchell Loose
After missing the entire 2013 season with a knee injury, veteran blueliner Mitchell could not live up to his reputation as a stout defender last year. He routinely lost battles in front of L.A.'s net and no longer snuffed out opposing forwards’ designs with his long reach.
Had he merely lost a step, the Kings could have been forgiven for granting him a chance to bounce back.
However, the 37-year-old’s decision-making has also fallen victim to the aging process. Plays consistently died with the puck on Mitchell’s stick. Instead of moving it quickly to an available outlet, he often held on for a second too long.
Just look at this gaffe from Game 5 of the Western Conference Final against Chicago:
That’s the sort of tentativeness you’d expect from a rookie in his postseason trial by fire. From an experienced rearguard, it’s inexcusable.
Mitchell’s underlying numbers paint an ugly picture, too. In the 2013-14 playoffs, he posted the very worst relative Corsi percentage (minus-4.8) on the team. In other words, L.A. never controlled a smaller share of five-on-five shot attempts than when Mitchell was on the ice.
On a team that thrives on puck possession, that’s significant.
When comparing his postseason advanced stats in 2013-14 to those of 2011-12, his deployment stands out. He’s assumed a smaller percentage of the team’s even-strength (38.1 to 35.4) and short-handed ice time (57.4 to 47.7), while his quality of competition has dipped from 29.4 to 28.6 percent.
Mitchell’s role has shrunk in considerable fashion.
From L.A.’s cap-restricted perspective—the club currently has $2.2 million to work with—a stay-at-home vet who’s no longer relied upon as much in key defensive situations just isn’t worth a new contract.
However, since his last contract with the Kings paid him $3.5 million per season and the salary cap has risen from $64.3 million to $69 million, he probably wouldn’t have taken any less money to stay. This forced Lombardi to choose between him and Matt Greene.
As displayed in the playoffs, where Mitchell buckled under pressure and Greene quietly improved as the spring wore on, the rugged right-hander is likelier to regain his form.
2012 Mitchell was quite valuable. The 2014 model was expendable.
Bringing Jeff Schultz Back
Offering the length the Kings lost in Mitchell while providing better mobility, Schultz was a decent contributor during the most recent playoffs.
Sure, he struggled against the Blackhawks, but which Kings defender other than Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin didn’t? Even overtime hero Alec Martinez was flustered throughout most of that series.
At 6’6” and 230 pounds, Schultz is a mountain of a man who has 399 regular-season games of experience under his belt. In the 2013-14 postseason, he produced a five-on-five Corsi percentage of 54.2 and a relative Corsi of minus-3.3 percent. Both are stronger marks than what Mitchell managed.
With that said, he isn’t the departing blueliner’s replacement.
Doughty, Muzzin, Martinez, Greene, Slava Voynov and Robyn Regehr are the starters, and youngster Brayden McNabb may get a look next season as well.
Schultz is a safety net in the case of injury or a considerable slump by an incumbent.
He’s not destined to be a regular, and his upside is fairly limited. He sticks to his game, which is predicated on positioning and an active stick, and can fill in when called upon.
Returning at an annual cap hit of $850,000 for two years, the 28-year-old shores up L.A.’s defensive corps with very little risk involved, as the deal should run out before his eventual decline.
Signing Adam Cracknell
The Kings’ forward group is more or less set in stone, but a little competition in the bottom six wouldn’t hurt—especially when it comes at the modest expense of one year and $600,000.
Former St. Louis Blues grinder Adam Cracknell paired up with Ryan Reaves to terrorize L.A. in the 2013 postseason.
Now, he’s been signed to make L.A. uneasy once more...but as a member of the team.
Kyle Clifford and Trevor Lewis won’t be allowed to feel too comfortable with Cracknell breathing down their necks.
The 6’2”, 210-pound winger is fearless and perhaps a bit underrated in the cycle game. When he and Reaves worked their magic in 2013, they did so to the tune of a 57.5 five-on-five Corsi percentage. That’s 3.2 percent better than what St. Louis mustered when he was on the bench.
Cracknell’s playoff linemates went from Chris Porter and Reaves in 2013 to Porter and Maxim Lapierre in 2013-14, and his possession numbers lurched off a cliff (44.6 five-on-five Corsi percentage).
With the right partners in crime—which is to say, forwards who don’t wilt in the trenches—he’s shown that he can do some damage.
His lone goal this spring revealed what he brings to the table, as he outraced Michal Rozsival to the puck in the corner before winning a net-front battle and potting home a crucial 1-0 marker:
Cracknell isn’t all that skilled, but he works hard and has amassed 16 points in 65 career regular-season contests. Clifford and Lewis combined for 19 points in 144 games last year.
If one of them slips up, the 28-year-old will be ready to pounce on the opportunity.
L.A. has essentially shortened the leash on its fourth-line wingers. Now, they can either step up to the plate or risk losing their spot to Cracknell.
Having never played more than 24 NHL games in a single year, he’ll be chomping at the bit to prove he got a raw deal in St. Louis.
Following the Kings’ decisions to re-sign Greene and Marian Gaborik, the club wasn’t swimming in cap space.
There was only room for minor moves, and Lombardi made them count by acquiring insurance policies for his team’s two biggest weaknesses: defense and fourth-line wingers. Neither Schultz nor Cracknell will deliver high-impact performances, but both veterans represent cheap, battle-tested reinforcements.
They also offer a touch of diversity, as they're bigger than most of the starters in the lineup, which will allow head coach Darryl Sutter to plug them in when he anticipates a particularly gritty affair.
Where Mitchell’s concerned, L.A. was already phasing him out of crucial defensive situations during the playoffs. As such, the decision to let him walk was judicious.
The wear and tear on his body, coupled with a free fall in hockey sense, suggested that he would never be worth the money he’d demand—much less over two years.
Coming off a Stanley Cup run with little cap space to spare, the Kings exhibited faith in their current group and largely stood pat to start free agency.
It’s hard to bemoan the moves or the lack of flashy ones.
After all, over the only two full seasons since they opened their championship window in June 2011, no one has proven capable of beating them. The team's makeup didn't need an overhaul—just a slight wrinkle here and there to prevent complacency and enhance versatility.