EL SEGUNDO, CA — Veteran defenseman Willie Mitchell, a key member of the Los Angeles Kings’ 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup Championship teams, left the Kings after last season because the team could not fit him under the salary cap.
Mitchell ended up switching coasts, signing a two-year contract with the Florida Panthers, a deal that has a $4,250,000 salary cap hit, a figure that was nowhere close to what the Kings could fit under their salary cap.
So far, the move east has been good for Mitchell.
“It’s been great,” he said. “It’s been awesome. Being completely honest, I didn’t know a ton about the organization, didn’t know any players except [goaltender] Roberto [Luongo], playing with him in Vancouver. There is new ownership and kind of new coaches and all that. It’s been really good.”
Mitchell indicated that he chose to sign with the Panthers because it was the right fit, in similar fashion to his process before signing with the Kings.
“Being completely honest, it’s tough going from, in your mind, a team that just won a Stanley Cup and then, all of a sudden, you’re going to a team that was one of the weaker teams in the East,” he noted. “But I felt like it was the right place, the right opportunity and the right fit. The same thing I did when I came here in 2010, was that [for] the teams that were interested in me, I tried to find the right fit. I felt it was the right fit.”
“They need a player like me and I felt that it was a good, young team,” he added. “So far, we’ve done OK. We’re beating some good teams, learning how to kind of play the right way and do things and have our young guys grow into their own. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been different.”
Mitchell indicated that new ownership has breathed new life into the Panthers franchise.
“It’s been good, it’s been different this year, just a different challenge,” he said. “It’s really fun because there’s new ownership. There is a sense of ‘OK, we added some players and it’s turning,’ and so far, it has. We’re keeping our goals against pretty down. We’re not scoring a lot, but we’ve put some good wins on the board this year against some really good teams. So you can kind of sense that the young guys start to believe.”
“It was the same thing here, right? You had great players and it was believing how great you were,” he added. “We still have work to do, but you can start to see the growth and that’s fun to be a part of something like that when you see something grow. Like I said, it’s the same thing that happened here. Hopefully, I’ll be a big part of that and keep going with it. It’s been fun.”
Although Mitchell was a leader in the Kings dressing room, he was not one of the “official” leaders. But that changed quickly with the Panthers, who named him their captain when the 2014-15 season began.
“[With the Kings], it was a team where I’d just go out and play and we had a lot of leadership,” he noted. “[With the Panthers], I’m kind of in a more of a leadership role and so you kind of take on that responsibility, which is a little bit different.”
“I’ve done it earlier in my career, but when I was here in L.A., I could kind of just sit in the weeds and just collectively—because there were so many great leaders on the team,” he added. “But it’s been fun. It’s been a really good transition so far.”
As a seasoned veteran with two Stanley Cup rings, Mitchell has also been given the responsibility of mentoring young Panthers’ defenseman Aaron Ekblad, the first overall selection in the 2014 National Hockey League Draft.
“I think he’s like a Drew [Doughty], but obviously, earlier in the process,” said Mitchell. “He’s 18 and he’s so talented, so you don’t really have to say too much. To be honest, he’s a really, really mature kid, like really, really mature. He doesn’t look 18, doesn’t act 18. It’s been good.”
“We’ve had a good relationship. Me and my wife couldn’t have kids, so we took on an 18-year-old kid,” added Mitchell. “So he’s living with us this year, too.”
“It’s fun and he’s going to drive me right now down into Manhattan Beach,” Mitchell said with a big grin. “It’s perfect, right? 18. You always have a driver if you have a glass of wine. This was the sale on it.”
“It’s been good. It’s been great. Like I said, he’s really mature. Seriously, he’s a good kid and an excellent player. He’s got a lot, a lot of skill and maybe it’s more about just teaching him those things that you learned from great coaches, players, peers you’ve played with and hopefully, picked up to help him.”
Mitchell indicated that he uses Doughty as an example in his talks with Ekblad.
“When you’re young, you always want to accomplish everything,” Mitchell noted. “I talk about Drew. I played with him all the time. I talk about how Drew, even though he’s all-world offensively, there are games when he’s playing against an Anaheim—he’s not trying to put up points. He’s actually just trying to keep [Corey] Perry and [Ryan] Getzlaf off the board and knowing when to do and when not to do it and those things that we all didn’t know at 18. I’m just trying to help out with that, and like I said, he’s a great player. He’s had a great start. I think he’s our leading scorer as a defenseman. That’s been fun. That’s the kind of challenge that I like to take on and it’s part of going forward.”
Away from the rink, Mitchell has used his team’s extended time in Southern California to his advantage.
“We weren’t here forever,” he noted. “We were only here four years, but heck, the four years were so great to me and my family. We met so many great people here. We really, really enjoyed L.A.”
“We didn’t have a clue when we came and I was kind of a small town kid,” he added. “But we didn’t have any little idea of how much we’d like it. I’ve really grown to like L.A., and we have a lot of friends. We’re kind of West Coasters, me and my wife, so it’s nice to be back. We’ve been really busy, trying to see friends.”
Beyond visiting with friends and mentoring young players, Mitchell has one, much more important matter to attend to while here in the Los Angeles area.
On Tuesday night, he will make his triumphant return to Staples Center in Los Angeles to face his old team. But before they hit the ice, there will be some important, unfinished business to take care of—the Kings will present Mitchell with his 2014 Stanley Cup ring.
“Yeah, I’m looking forward to it,” Mitchell said, his eyes gleaming just a bit with excitement. “[Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick] already spoiled my party though. I was trying not to look [at the ring] and I got a text one day and I’m like ‘Oh, Quickie.’ It’s like a video and it’s the crown of it, and I’m like, ‘you ass.’ He’s like, ‘oh, sorry buddy.’ So I know what it looks like a little bit. But I didn’t really look long.”
“That’ll be awesome and just kind of like the whole process,” Mitchell added. “These guys, they had it ahead of me, obviously, but it’s a reflection. The banner goes up. I watched that game. I’ll get it and it’ll just be a reflection. It’ll be fun. It’ll be really cool.”
Gazing at the 2014 Stanley Cup Championship banner and reflecting on its significance is something Mitchell will do before the game.
“That got me chills right there,” he said. “I always do that. I always sit on the bench for two minutes in warm-ups. I’ve always done that in my career. You have some time for reflection.”
“Yeah, I’ve always done that in my career,” he added. “I’ll probably give some time for reflection there.”
But once the players hit the ice for warm-ups, the banter with his old teammates will begin.
“He’s full of chirps, I’m full of chirps,” said Doughty. “We’ll be bickering back and forth, I’m sure, as will everyone else on the team. But the number one thing is that we want to beat’em, and we have to beat’em.”
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” said Kings defenseman Robyn Regher. “Guys really loved watching him warm up his edges, as he called it, in the warm-ups and the TV time out, things like that. He’s always out there, flying around, so I’m sure we’re going to have a little fun with that, we’ll talk about some sustainable fish farming, and the other things he enlightened us about when he was here.”
When Mitchell learned of Doughty’s comment, he laughed.
“Oh, for sure there will be some [chirping] during warm-up,” he said. “I’m going to have a tough time not smiling the whole game because I know Drew is going to be—there will be lots of stuff going on. No cutting deals, right?”
Jokes aside, what comes through loud and clear when the Kings talk about Mitchell is how highly regarded, respected and loved he is, even though he is no longer with the team.
“I miss that guy,” said Doughty. “He’s a great player, and I was fortunate enough to have played with him for a few years. We miss him here.”
“It’ll be good to see him,” added Doughty. “He used to be my stall mate, [sitting next to him in the dressing room at the Kings practice facility]. I miss him, of course. He’s a great guy, a good friend of mine. He’s always able to put a smile on my face, that’s for sure. Every day, there was something new that he came in with that made me laugh.”
Like he is doing now with Ekblad, Mitchell was a mentor to Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin.
“He was a pretty vocal guy in the room, and he was great to talk to away from the rink as well,” said Muzzin. “He helped me out with some positional stuff and a lot on the penalty-kill, because he’s a very good penalty-killer.”
“[He told me to] just enjoy your time [in the NHL], because, as he said, it goes by pretty fast,” added Muzzin. “Enjoy your time, have fun, and enjoy the guys, because at the end, that’s what you miss, the time with the guys.”
“To see Mitchie out there on the other team will be fun, and to see him away from the rink is also nice. I’ll probably try to beat him one-on-one, or something—just play him hard. You’re trying to win, so you’re just trying to stay competitive out there.”
Indeed, they all know that pleasantries aside, there is a game to be played.
“He’s an opponent,” Doughty emphasized. “We have to play it that way. I’m sure, once in awhile, there will be jokes thrown around…but it’s a game. But our coaching staff doesn’t really want that to be happening—going around, joking around out there. It’s game time. You have to put your game face on and play the game to the best of your ability, the hardest you can play it, and that’s how we’re going to approach it.”
“They got a big win in Anaheim,” Muzzin noted. “We’ve got to look at it as if it’s just another game. We’ve got to get focused for another hard-fought battle.”
To that end, what will Mitchell say to his teammates?
“You just speak to what the [Kings do] well and what we can learn off of a great team like that—how they compete, how they battle, the preparation, all those things,” said Mitchell. “I guess the only thing you do is [give] advice as a player, let them know what that team is capable of, how hard they compete, why they’re great, why they’ve won two Stanley Cups and what we have to do to just have a chance against a great team like that.”
“It’ll be fun. It’ll be a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to it.”
About That Locker Stall Thing…
As reported earlier, Mitchell occupied the locker room stall next to Doughty at the Kings practice facility, the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California. But now, with Mitchell gone, Regher occupies that stall.
Kings assistant equipment manager Dana Bryson confirmed that locker room stalls are assigned by seniority.
Regehr wasn’t so sure.
“I don’t know how that works, but when I first got here in April 2013, I actually sat right here, but that was when Willie was out all year with a knee injury, and [Rob Scuderi] was here—I think he’s older than I am, [so] I don’t think it defaults to the oldest guy,” he said. “The next year, [Mitchell] was back, and he sat back here in his old stall, so we’re just flip-flopping, I guess.”
Regher then noted a big disadvantage of having the locker room stall nearest the main door, where forwards Trevor Lewis, Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar have their stalls.
“I don’t really like it that much, though, because I have to sit too close to the forwards,” he joked.
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