“We need a blueliner” is a typical Caps Fan’s lament this offseason (second only to DAMMIT!) and recently unrestricted free agent defenseman Willie Mitchell has been rumored to be in the Capital’s cross-hairs. Mitchell has been training and skating for 18 days and is finally symptom-free after his latest concussion – all fueling speculation that his signing is imminent.
But would Wilie Mitchell a good fit on the Capitals’ blueline?
No conversation on Mitchell can start without first addressing his health and the risks that come with signing him. Willie’s latest concussion, his third, caused him to miss almost 6 months – which is much more than the 9 games he missed in 2006 and the 8 games he lost in 2002. Mitchell is also more likely to have a relapse, which calls into question: How will it affect his physical play? If this question was an easy one to answer, the 10 year veteran would have been signed on the first day of free agency this year.
If healthy, Willie Mitchell is one of the better shutdown defensemen in the league and most analysts would quickly pencil him in as a top 4 pairing on the Caps’ Blueline. The problem is: Would it be an upgrade that’s worth the risk?
Behind The Net had an interesting post that tried to solve Defensive Contribution. Essentially, if we subtract Goals Against when the player is off the ice (per 60 minutes) from Goals Against when the player is on the ice (per 60 minutes) we can get an approximation of their defensive contribution after adjusting for Even Strength playing time.
Using this method would put Mitchell (-1.12) behind only current Caps’ defensemen Jeff Schultz (14.68), John Erskine (7.93) and Tom Poti (6.78).
When we analyze the puck possession stat (via CORSI), we notice that Willie Mitchell (-.71) would be in the bottom three in regards to all Caps’s defenseman. Mitchell would only be ahead of Karl Alzner (-2.81) and Tyler Sloan (-3.73). To be fair, Willie started only 43% of the time in the Offensive Zone against the toughest competition VAN opponents had to offer. But even after adjusting his Shot Differential for Quality of Competition and Quality of Teammates he would still only be ahead of Sloan and Alzner.
Looking at the Penalty Kill shows us a totally different picture however. Mitchell would be second in Defensive Contribution (2.53) to only Jeff Schultz (7.63) and slightly ahead of recently departed Shaone Morrisonn (2.40). Adjust PK CORSI numbers for Quality of Competition and Quality of Teammates and Mitchell would lead all Caps blueliners that played 40+ games last year.
Which brings us back to the issue: Do three concussions (or the risk of a 4th) affect Mitchell’s game to the point where he ceases to be an effective Top 4 blueliner? Or is a shutdown defenseman who could upgrade an already weak Penalty Kill unit worth the risk? It’s a tough question to answer.
(Editor’s note: Michael Russo reports:
The former Wild defenseman, I’m told, actually could sign a contract with performance bonuses because he spent 100 days on injured reserve last year — including the playoffs.
Certainly this would help lessen the risk of signing him.)