The free agent bidding war for Willie Mitchell

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Thumbnail image for williemitchell1.jpgAs this summer’s free agency trudges along, one name getting a lot of heat lately is defenseman Willie Mitchell. Mitchell spent the last four seasons with the Vancouver Canucks and before that he played with the Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, and the New Jersey Devils. He’s developed the reputation (and has had the game to back it up) for being one of the toughest defenders in the NHL.

If you’re the GM of a team looking for that two-way defenseman that can chip in offensively and get back to block a shot or throw the body, Mitchell isn’t your guy as he’s only going to do the latter. Luckily for him, there are more than a few teams in the NHL looking for a hard-hitting, defensive defenseman and Dan Murphy of Sportsnet tweets that a few have checked in on him already.

WMitchell has worked out for the Canucks, Sharks and Kings. Testing went very well. No conf on LA offer, WM now expected to visit Wash

How do those candidates shape up in the race to get Willie Mitchell? We’ll tell you.

San Jose: The Sharks tried to get their hands on Niklas Hjalmarsson in early July only to have the Blackhawks match their offer sheet for the defenseman. The Sharks are in need of a bopper on the blue line as they’ve lost Rob Blake to retirement and Douglas Murray can’t play 60 minutes a night. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Dan Boyle and Jason Demers are nice defensemen but they’re not the big-time defensive presence you look for in a situation where you need to make a stop. Mitchell could plug in instantly to be a top-four defenseman with the Sharks and make them quite formidable.

Los Angeles: The Kings are in a strange spot. They need defensive help both in the form of a true defender but also could stand to use a guy who can make plays. Drew Doughty is the top guy here and Jack Johnson is solid. Rob Scuderi makes for a good situational defender and the team is without Matt Greene for a little while thanks to off-season surgery. Right now they’ve got three guys they can bank on, one man out hurt and two spots that are totally up for grabs.

While Greene will be closer to being ready by the start of the season, getting a guy with a nasty streak like Willie Mitchell has will help balance out the Kings lineup and help them get even tougher defensively. He’ll also be able to help the younger defenders looking to make the Kings roster out better by having them learn from him. Mitchell would also help make up for the departure by Sean O’Donnell. Don’t laugh, O’Donnell has had a positive plus/minus rating each year with the Kings.

Vancouver: Mitchell knows Vancouver well and plays their system about as well as anyone can. What hurts the Canucks here is their current salary status. While they’ll catch some relief to start the year with Sami Salo likely to end up on the LTIR, bringing back the potentially pricey Mitchell could make things even harder for the team once Salo returns to the lineup. The Canucks are overloaded on the blue line and unless they make a move to send one of those guys out (Kevin Bieksa has been rumored many times) making Mitchell fit into the budget might not be able to happen. What does work for them is that Mitchell is familiar with the team and seems to love playing in Vancouver. If the guy wants to go elsewhere to get paid, however, he can’t be faulted for that.

Washington: Of the teams in the running for Mitchell, the Caps are the one team that could see an instant benefit to adding him. While the Caps have plenty of talent on the roster, they don’t have a go-to shutdown defenseman. Mitchell would fill that role immediately with Washington. While you’ve got Mike Green, Jeff Schultz, Tom Poti, John Carlson and perhaps Karl Alzner as well, none of those players stand out as a physical force. One guy they do have that does fit that bill isn’t very good (John Erskine). They’ve lost Shaone Morrisonn to the Buffalo Sabres and while that’s not a terrible blow, he’s at least a guy that cared about playing defense. Adding Mitchell, you could conceivably put him with Mike Green and feel OK about letting Mike Green roam a bit free offensively knowing full well you’ll have Mitchell there to back him up.

Who gets the inside track Mitchell is probably the team able and willing to give up the sweetest contract for his services. This puts Los Angeles, San Jose, and Washington in a bidding war of sorts as they’re the three teams with the most flexibility, Los Angeles much more so than Washington or San Jose. Los Angeles also has desperation to contend with as they’ve already missed out on Paul Martin and Dan Hamhuis this off-season. Washington has been extremely quiet this summer and landing Mitchell might just be the one move good enough to help them out the most this year. Vancouver could be in the running if Mitchell really wants to stay there and opts to cut a sweetheart deal for the team but whether that happens or not, Vancouver will still have a move to make later on.

Pavelski, Perry switch to Stars after long stays in first home

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FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Joe Pavelski joined the Dallas Stars as an expensive free agent coming off one of his best goal-scoring years, while Corey Perry quietly signed a low-cost deal for one year after playing the fewest games of his career because of a knee injury.

That’s where the differences end for the veteran forwards trying to help the Stars make back-to-back playoff trips for the first time in more than a decade. The Stars will try to get past the second round after a Game 7 overtime loss to St. Louis, eventual winners of the Stanley Cup.

Pavelski and Perry both ended up on the same team after lengthy careers with the clubs that drafted them – 13 years for Pavelski in San Jose and 14 seasons for Perry with Anaheim, including a Cup title.

”It’s different. It’s fun,” said Pavelski, who signed a $21 million, three-year deal. ”It’s an exciting part of our career and it’s a change that I think you come in and you embrace that there’s going to be different things and learn to do it their way and help add to that how you can.

”It’s definitely fun to have a guy coming in with a similar situation.”

Pavelski scored 38 goals last regular season, three off his career high, and helped the Sharks reach the Western Conference finals. San Jose had the most successful stretch in franchise history during the four years he was captain, winning six playoff series.

The 35-year-old figures to play on one of the top lines, probably alongside either captain Jamie Benn or 2018-19 scoring leader Tyler Seguin. The Sharks wanted to re-sign Pavelski but couldn’t make it work under the salary cap after giving defenseman Erik Karlsson a $92 million contract.

Circumstances are a bit different for Perry, who is younger than Pavelski (34) but has seen declining production the past three seasons. Perry might miss the Oct. 3 opener at home against Boston after breaking a bone in his foot two days before the start of training camp.

Even when he’s healthy, Perry isn’t likely to fill a leading role similar to that of Pavelski. Both were drafted in 2003 – Perry with the 28th overall pick in the first round by the Ducks, Pavelski in the seventh round by the Sharks.

”It’s a new chapter,” said Perry, who signed for $1.5 million after the Ducks bought out the final two years of the contract for the franchise leader in games (988). ”It’s something different. I’m embracing it as change is sometimes a good thing, rejuvenates myself and my career.”

Benn figures Dallas is as good a place as any for two guys to start over after each spent so long with the only team he had known.

”I’m sure it’s pretty different for them,” Benn said. ”But we make it pretty easy for guys to come into this group. It’s something I take pride in being a captain is we want guys to be comfortable right from Day 1. I think they’re pretty comfortable. They’re fitting in well.”

The Stars are counting on Pavelski for offense after finishing near the bottom of the league in goals during Benn’s lowest-scoring full season since his rookie year in 2009-10. While Seguin led Dallas in points (80), goals (33) and assists (47), Benn scored just 53 points (27 goals, 26 assists).

”Obviously, he’s a goal-scorer,” Seguin said of Pavelski. ”But the biggest thing for him, too, is he’s another threat out there. You have him in the slot now and guys got to respect him. It’ll open up guys like me maybe for one-timers now and Jamie in front, so who knows.”

Despite career lows across the board because of the knee injury, Perry is a former champion (2007) and the only player on the Dallas roster with a 50-goal season (50 in 2010-11, when he was the NHL MVP).

”I think they’re a little different some ways,” Seguin said. ”I think with Joe you saw how San Jose rallied around him. He’s kind of more of a quiet leader. I think Corey Perry, he’s got the ultimate hockey player resume. He’s won everything. He’s been in every situation, and he’s going to know what to say at those moments.”

Seguin has emerged as a leader a year after signing a $79 million, eight-year extension that kicks in this season, adding him to a mix that includes Benn, veteran forward Alexander Radulov and goalie Ben Bishop, a Vezina Trophy finalist last season.

But there’s always room for more, particularly for a franchise that hasn’t made consecutive trips to the playoffs since the last of five straight postseason appearances in 2008.

”I think we have a couple of levels still to go in how we want to be and what we want to be about as a team,” second-year coach Jim Montgomery said. ”Those two are going to help propel us there.”

Pavelski and Perry start with some common ground.

Far from Czech home, Kubalik adjusts to life with Blackhawks

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CHICAGO (AP) — Dominik Kubalik is leaning on David Kampf while he transitions to life in the NHL with the Chicago Blackhawks. He peppers his Czech countryman with all sorts of questions.

”I think he’s a little bit mad at me right now,” a grinning Kubalik said, ”because I’m still asking ‘What’s that?’ and ‘Where are we going?’ and ‘Where’s the training room?’ Stuff like that.”

The Blackhawks have their own questions about Kubalik, one of the biggest variables in their pursuit of the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2017.

It sure looks as if Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane might play together on Chicago’s top line, and close friends and former juniors teammates Dylan Strome and Alex DeBrincat are a good bet for the second line. Kubalik is in the mix to play alongside one of those potent duos.

It would be quite an opportunity to walk into as a 24-year-old rookie, but Kubalik isn’t looking ahead.

”Everything is pretty new,” he said. ”I’m just trying to get used to it as quick as possible. But I feel great.”

Kubalik skated with Strome for at least part of Saturday’s session on the second day of training camp. Strome played against Kubalik at the world championships and saw him in the Ontario Hockey League a few years ago.

”He’s got a real hard shot, fast skater, some good hands,” Strome said. ”So I think he’s going to add a different element to our team. He’s got a great one-timer. He knows where to go and knows how to find open ice. Big body, too, so it’s a lot of good attributes to have in a player.”

Coach Jeremy Colliton said Kubalik has been ”as advertised” so far.

”It’s going to be somewhat of an adjustment for him,” Colliton said. ”He has played over here in North America before, so that’s good. But it’s still going to take some practices and games.”

Kubalik was drafted by Los Angeles in the seventh round in 2013. But the 6-foot-2 winger never played for the Kings, who shipped him to Chicago for a fifth-round pick in January.

He had spent most of his career in the Czech Republic before playing for HC Ambri-Piotta in Switzerland for part of the 2017-18 season and again last year.

Kubalik had 25 goals and 32 assists in 50 games for the Swiss club last season, and then had a goal and five assists in five playoff games. He also had six goals and six assists in 10 games at the worlds.

The move to Ambri-Piotta was a key moment for Kubalik in his journey to the NHL.

”I was still thinking that I just need to make another step in my career,” he said. ”So I decided to, if there was a chance to go to Switzerland, felt pretty good about it. So I tried it and it actually worked pretty well.”

Kubalik plans to stick to his strengths in his transition to the NHL.

”I think I’m playing pretty simple,” he said. ”I don’t want to handle the puck for a while. I want to just put it as quick as possible to the net. If there is a chance to shoot, I’m just going to take it.”

While Kubalik is learning his way around Chicago, there was at least one familiar face in the locker room when he joined the Blackhawks. He played with Kampf on a U-20 team in the Czech Republic a couple years ago.

He also could make his NHL debut in his home country when Chicago begins the season in Prague on Oct. 4 against Philadelphia.

”I don’t really want to think about it. It’s still pretty far away,” he said. ”But obviously I know it would be probably amazing.”

Rangers begin training camp with goal of making the playoffs

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The New York Rangers have two clear goals this season: to keep improving and return to the playoffs after a two-year absence.

The addition of forwards Artemi Panarin and Kaapo Kakko, and defenseman Jacob Trouba this summer helped accelerate the team’s rebuild, and now the Rangers believe they are ready to take the next step in the second year under coach David Quinn.

”We want to make the playoffs,” Quinn said Friday at the team’s practice facility in Greenburgh, New York, ‘Obviously it’s something we want to accomplish. The moves we made over the summer are just a continuation of what we’ve been doing over the last 16, 17 months. Within the walls of our locker room and the walls of this building, we feel good about the direction we’re going in and we’re going to continue to get better daily.”

The Rangers went into rebuilding mode by dealing some veterans at the trade deadline in 2018 and continued it at last season’s deadline. There were a lot of ups and downs in the first full season of the makeover, and they finished 32-36-14. New York had just five wins in its last 21 games (5-10-6) to end up seventh in the eight-team Metropolitan Division, 20 points out of the last wild card in the Eastern Conference.

Now, the team that began training camp with on-ice testing on Friday has even higher expectations than the one that left for the summer five months earlier.

”I want improvement,” Rangers team president John Davidson told reporters one day earlier: ”Playoffs is a goal for sure, but there’s got to be improvement the right way that you can count on long-term to get gratification out of the season.”

Quinn believes the familiarity the returning players have with his system should help their second training camp together get off to a better start than a year ago. And they should be better prepared for their coach’s physical demands.

”They certainly have done everything we’ve asked them to do away from the rink,” Quinn said. ”They look in better shape, they’re a little bit older, a little bit more mature. We just want to continue to build on the progress they made last year.”

Signing Panarin in free agency was a big boost. The 27-year-old had 28 goals and 59 assists last season while helping Columbus get the last wild card in the Eastern Conference and then beat Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay to advance to the second round. He brings career totals of 116 goals and 204 assists in 322 games over four seasons with Blue Jackets and Chicago Blackhawks.

Kakko was selected with the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s NHL draft, and Trouba was acquired in a trade with Winnipeg and then signed as a restricted free-agent.

Davidson, who rejoined the organization in May after stepping down as the president of the Columbus Blue Jackets, knows Panarin well.

”He’s competitive, really competitive,” Davidson said. ”The big spots in games, he likes to find a way. … He’s’ a guy that’s going to show up for work every day and you don’t have to worry about him.

”He’s very strong, strong on the puck, strong in loose-puck battles.”

Some other things to know as the Rangers head into their first practice sessions on Saturday:

BETWEEN THE PIPES: Henrik Lundqvist back for his 15th season after going 18-23-10, with career-worst of a 3.07 goals-against average and a .907 save-percentage. It also marked the first time he had fewer than 24 wins.

Alexandar Georgiev is coming off a solid season as the backup, going 14-13-4 with a 2.91 GAA. The 23-year-old could be challenged for the No. 2 spot by Igor Shesterkin, the Rangers’ fourth-round pick in the 2014 draft, who has come over from the KHL.

Davidson and Quinn both said they don’t have a target for games in mind for Lundqvist, but don’t want to overuse him.

”We want him to have a great season so that when we do make the playoffs he’s in a position where he’s fresh,” Quinn said.

LINE COMBINATIONS: Quinn said he plans on starting camp with Pavel Buchnevich joining the first line with Panarin and Mika Zibanejad. Filip Chytil will get a look at centering the second line with Chris Kreider on the left wing and possibly Kakko or fellow rookie Vitali Kravtsov on the other side.

Lias Andersson and Brett Howden will get chances in the middle on subsequent lines. Ryan Strome is likely to start out on a wing, but could also see some time at center.

O CAPTAIN, MY CAPTAIN: The Rangers haven’t had a captain since trading Ryan McDonagh at the deadline in 2018, and there doesn’t appear to be a standout favorite to fill that role.

”I think we’d like to have a captain but that’s something that’s going to evolve,” Quinn said. ”We’re in a situation where it’s going to happen and the captain will pick himself in a lot of ways.”

Wild signs Jared Spurgeon to 7-year, $53 million extension

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One of Bill Guerin’s first big moves as general manager of the Minnesota Wild was to make sure one of his team’s top defenders will remain with the team for quite a long time.

The team announced on Saturday that it has signed veteran defender Jared Spurgeon to a seven-year, $53 million extension. The contract, which begins at the start of the 2020-21 season, will run through the end of the 2026-27 season and carry a cap hit of $7.575 million. That salary cap hit is the largest one ever handed out by the Wild, just barely topping the cap hits belonging to Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.

Spurgeon was set to become an unrestricted free agent this upcoming season and would have almost certainly been one of the top players on the open market. Instead, he remains in Minnesota where he will continue to play for the only team he has ever known.

In the short-term, Spurgeon is worth every penny to the Wild. He may not be a household name among the NHL’s elite defenders, but he is an excellent top-pairing player that excels in both his own end of the ice and offensively. The only potential downside to the deal is that Spurgeon turns 30 in November and will be turning 31 in his first year of the new contract.

That is an expensive investment in a player on the wrong side of 30, something the Wild already have a lot of. With Spurgeon’s contract in place the team now has more than $38 million committed to seven players next season that will be over the age of 30. That number would only increase if they re-sign Mikko Koivu.

How Spurgeon’s career holds up will go a long way toward determining how this works out for the Wild.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.