We're talking about those who fly under the radar, but the bosses know they couldn't function without. The people who constantly attract positive comments from their customers. They do extra without being asked, do the dirty work that never gets noticed unless it doesn't get done, and they never create drama.
Like usual, hockey mirrors life. You look around and have co-workers who can either make your life easier or much more difficult. Likewise, hockey players have teammates who do the same.
The Kings went out and acquired not one, but two guys who fit perfectly into that category: Willie Mitchell and Alexei Ponikarovsky. They might not be putting up the huge numbers or the flashy highlights, but the Kings have proven to be much better as a collective group when they're out there doing their thing.
While the Kings were in the midst of their November struggles, I had someone ask me, "Are Ponikarovsky and Mitchell THAT important to the Kings?" At that point, the Kings hadn't won a game in regulation in almost three weeks and were losing to the Florida Panthers going into the 3rd period. At home.
The answer is simple: Yes.
Through the first two and a half months of the season, newcomer Ponikarovsky is playing against the toughest quality of competition for the Kings. Fellow newcomer Mitchell is also playing the most difficult opponents on a nightly basis: second most difficult among defensemen. They're the two newest players on the team and they're two of the top four players on the team when it comes to toughest minutes. Apparently they've made some serious first impressions with Terry Murray and Co.
Fans might look at the stats and be underwhelmed when they look at what the free-agent acquisitions are bringing to the team. Ponikarovsky only has 2 goals and 5 points in 16 games while Mitchell has a single goal to show for his 14-game season. But if you're simply looking at the boxcar stats these players are putting up, you're missing the point.
It's not just that their plus/minus stats are on the positive side. It's that they put everyone else on the team in roles that are more comfortable. Mitchell paired with Doughty makes it clear that Jack Johnson is a 2nd pairing guy. When the Handzus-Simmonds-Ponikarovsky line is together, it's clearly defined that they will be responsible for slowing down the opponent's stars while the top two lines will be responsible for scoring. It seems simple, but when guys like Wayne Simmonds are moved to the top line, the roles can be blurred.
The most important stat for these players GM Dean Lombardi brought in isn't goals, points, or even PP points. It's wins. These two veterans were brought in to help a young team with potential take the next step from "young team with potential" to "young team to be feared." The simple fact is they win when both of these guys are in the lineup. And they win a lot.
The Kings are 11-3 in the 14 games Willie Mitchell has played this season. They're 12-3-1 in the 16 games Ponikarovsky has played. As for the games when they were out of the lineup? The Kings were a pathetic 5-7. That's the difference between a team who has home ice advantage in the playoffs and a team scheduling tee times on April 10.
But let's look deeper. Sure, they're winning with these guys in the lineup, but why? What is it that is different about the team when they're on the bench as opposed to IR? First of all, the Kings have a +16 goal differential with both Mitchell and Ponikarovsky in the lineup. Without the newcomers, they were -7 as a team (and that's INCLUDING a 5-1 win against the Islanders).
So what gives? Are they scoring more when they're both in the lineup? Are they better defensively when they're both in the lineup? Well, the answer is a resounding YES in both cases. It's almost staggering how much those two players have meant to the Kings' defense. In fact, they give up on average 1.24 goals less with Ponikarovsky and Mitchell in the lineup than they do without. What does that mean exactly? Is that a big deal? Well, that's the difference between the Montreal Canadiens (2nd in the NHL) and the Edmonton Oilers (3rd worst in the NHL).
Offensively they're better, as well. The contrast isn't quite as stark in that they average "only" 0.7 more goals per game with the duo in the lineup. But again, it's important to take that number and put it into context. That .7 may seem like a miniscule amount, but take that number per game and it's significant. If Mitchell and Ponikarovsky played every game at that rate, the Kings would be 9th in the league in scoring. If they were never in the lineup, they'd be 27th.
Is it starting to add up?
Every good team has these types of players who do the hidden things within a game to help their team win. They block shots. They get in the passing lanes. They bail out teammates who are out of position. They kill penalties. They grind opponents down on the forecheck to create opportunities later in the game. In basketball they're called "glue" guys; guys who keep everything together. In hockey, they're called difference makers.
Go ahead and try to measure what they do. I find the best stat to measure their effectiveness is that W column in the standings.
Matt Reitz covers the Los Angeles Kings for TheFourthPeriod.com