Kings’ Willie Mitchell begins search for a new team
It’s not you, it’s me.
That is the NHL version — free-agency style — of a disappointing breakup. Hockey’s free agency starts Tuesday and among those on the market will be Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell, who won the Stanley Cup twice in Los Angeles.
“It was a little tough to take,” Mitchell said in a telephone interview with The Times. “It’s like one of those girlfriends you had before you got married who just kind of rejected you.”
Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi told Mitchell in their exit meeting that there would be no room for him, but then asked the veteran what he wanted, Mitchell said. If this had been a small window, it didn’t stay open long for a team pushing up against the salary cap.
Mitchell wanted to try to win a third championship in four seasons.
“I wanted to stay,” said Mitchell, who turned 37 in April. “I don’t want to say the D-word …Maybe modern D, dynasty, right? If you win another, that’s motivation.
“I get the business side of it too. It’s probably better to go in a new direction to where they’re excited to have you. I told him, it’s not about what I want. It’s about you guys wanting me. And if you don’t want me, I don’t want to be here.”
To be sure, this wasn’t said in a bitter way. Mitchell was philosophical about the situation and talked glowingly about his time in Los Angeles, winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in 2012 and the second in June. That came after he sat out the 2013 lockout-shortened regular season because of two knee surgeries.
His next stop could be a former home — Minnesota. A new wrinkle in the collective bargaining agreement allowed discussion between unrestricted players and teams to begin last Wednesday. Previously, negotiations could not open until July 1.
It has made an already compressed time even more hectic for teams and players. Although he would prefer a two-year deal, Mitchell said that he would entertain a one-year agreement if the fit was right.
There has been interest from a number of teams, including informal talks with the Minnesota Wild. Mitchell played there for parts of five seasons and his wife is from Minnesota. With the Wild, Mitchell reached the Western Conference finals in 2003, losing to the Ducks.
“Mikko [Koivu] would be the only guy left there that I played with when I was there,” Mitchell said, chuckling. “So it’s a little different. A lot of guys who were my teammates are in the front office or coaching.
“A new situation is going to be really motivating for me, showing everybody what I can do. And what I think I can do and how I can help the team. Any time you leave a team, or you get left, you want to prove some people wrong. That’s only human nature.”
Before free agency could begin, the Kings secured defenseman Jeff Schultz to a two-year, $1.7-million contract. Schultz, 28, signed with the Kings last summer and spent all of the regular season with Manchester (N.H.) of the American Hockey League. However, he was a valuable fill-in during the playoffs after Mitchell and Robyn Regehr were sidelined by injuries. Schultz figures to compete for the spot opened by Mitchell’s departure.
The Kings made qualifying offers to four restricted free agents, including winger Dwight King, before Monday’s deadline in order to retain negotiating rights. Also receiving qualifying offers were forward Andy Andreoff, goaltender J.F. Berube, and defenseman Brayden McNabb.
Likely to be on the move are former Buffalo and St. Louis goalie Ryan Miller, who reportedly has been courted by the Vancouver Canucks; former Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller, who was pushed out by the rapid development of youngster John Gibson; former Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen, who probably will command big dollars; veteran winger Jarome Iginla, most recently with Boston; winger Thomas Vanek, who went to college in Minnesota and met with the Wild last week, and Colorado center Paul Stastny.
Defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, who became a free agent when he was bought out by the Buffalo Sabres, might also get some offers, as might veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik, who reportedly was not going to be re-signed by the Penguins.
The Ducks signed minor league goalie Igor Bobkov to a one-year contract Monday. Bobkov, 23, split last season with Norfolk of the American Hockey League and Utah of the ECHL.
Staff writer Helene Elliott contributed to this report.
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