30 in 15: Mitchell, Frattin key questions for Kings
NHL.com continues its preview of the 201314 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
If you took a team picture of the Los Angeles Kings today and compared it to the one they took with the Stanley Cup on June 11, 2012, you'd see a lot of similar faces.
Seventeen players that dressed for the Kings in that Cup-clinching Game 6 against the New Jersey Devils at Staples Center remain on the roster and could be in the lineup Oct. 3, when Los Angeles starts the 2013-14 season at Xcel Energy Center against the Minnesota Wild.
"Our core is back, they're all signed long-term and not one of them is on the downside of their career," Kings general manager Dean Lombardi told NHL.com.
Ideally, they're also all hungry for more, especially after losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Final last spring.
The Kings became the sixth team in the salary-cap era to make a second straight trip to the conference final, but they left for the summer angry because they never felt they played at the top of their game in the playoffs, and therefore didn't give themselves the best chance to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.
It was an attitude Lombardi appreciated.
"Four years ago we were getting a parade for making the playoffs. Guys were content," Lombardi said. "That sentiment is gone."
The Kings have some issues to iron out before embarking on another Cup run. Here are three that have drawn headlines in training camp and remain unresolved:
1. Can Willie Mitchell's knee hold up for the season? -- The Kings have the depth on the back end to overcome an injury or two, but losing Mitchell again would be a giant blow because of all that he does and how much of a safety valve he is for coach Darryl Sutter and Slava Voynov, who should be his defense partner.
Sutter has made sure to bring Mitchell along slowly in camp to make sure that his twice surgically repaired knee is responding well. So far so good, but the true test will be how Mitchell's knee reacts when the intensity and his minutes pick up as the regular season gets going.
"It's still TBD [to be determined] how useful he'll be," Sutter said.
Lombardi thought Mitchell would have to retire because of his knee injury, one that just didn't seem to be getting any better despite multiple surgeries and months of rehab. Mitchell found a way to defy the odds and come back, but now the Kings need him to be in it for the long haul.
When healthy, as he was for the 2011-12 season and the entire run to the Stanley Cup, Mitchell is the Kings' most reliable defender and their most valuable penalty killer. He makes subtle plays with his body and his stick to keep forwards away from goalie Jonathan Quick and allow the Kings to push back in transition.
The Kings have nine defensemen with NHL experience signed. They may carry eight and they're hoping Mitchell is one of them.
"If he's in it changes the dynamic [of the defense]," Lombardi said. "If he's not, we're still covered with options. That was the whole idea this summer, to make sure we were covered, and I think we've done that."
2. Will Matt Frattin be the second-line left wing? -- Lombardi targeted Frattin in the trade that sent goalie Jonathan Bernier to the Toronto Maple Leafs because of his speed, his quick release and his lower-body strength that makes him difficult to defend in high-traffic areas.
"He's not big per se, but from his butt down he's a big boy," Lombardi said.
Frattin, though, has to prove to Sutter than he can be reliable in the defensive end. If he can do it and still be effective in the offensive end, then Sutter will continue to pencil Frattin in as the second-line left wing, giving him a chance to share the ice with center Mike Richards and right wing Jeff Carter.
It's an opportunity Frattin can't let pass him by.
He's 25 years old and has a history of putting up big numbers at lower levels. He was second in the NCAA with 60 points in 44 games for the University of North Dakota in 2010-11. He scored 35 points in a combined 44 games the past two seasons for the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League, and had 15 goals in a combined 81 games with the Maple Leafs the past two seasons.
"Obviously being a new player, he's trying to fit in," Sutter said. "He's trying to adapt to the locker room. Obviously there's 15 or 16 guys that have played together for two or three years that are used to winning and used to being successful, so he's trying to fit in to that."
They're pushing in training camp, but it may not be possible to keep both considering the veteran depth the Kings have up front (13 forwards on one-way contracts) and the fact that they have to carry 13 forwards to accommodate for eight defensemen.
Toffoli would seem to have the upper hand since he gave a glimpse into what he could do during the playoffs, scoring six points in 12 games. However, Pearson, who is in his second full professional season after totaling 47 points in 64 games for the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League last season, is a natural left wing and the Kings aren't deep with players like that.
Sutter has said Pearson has been more consistent in training camp.
If Frattin works out on the second line, a case can be made to keep either Toffoli or Pearson and put him on the third line with Jarret Stoll and Trevor Lewis. Lombardi is a fan of letting young players work their way up the lineup so they learn to be responsible players in all aspects of the game.
However, if Frattin doesn't work out on the second line, a case can be made to keep Pearson and Toffoli and make one the second-line left wing and the other the third-line left wing with Stoll in the middle and Frattin on the right.
Daniel Carcillo, Dwight King, Jordan Nolan and Kyle Clifford also are competing for jobs in the bottom-six. Sutter also can consider using Carcillo for the spot alongside Richards and Carter because he's played with them before when all three played for the Philadelphia Flyers.
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Senior Writer