It was refreshing to witness defenseman Willie Mitchell holding court in the Kings dressing room Saturday afternoon after sitting out the entire 2012-13 due to knee inflammation that required a pair of surgeries.
The room’s elder statesman, Mitchell turned 36 in April – and reminded Darryl Sutter he was 36, not 35, as the coach had said earlier in the week – and is attempting to play himself back towards the level he displayed with Los Angeles from 2010-12.
“I’m young in life, old for a hockey player,” Mitchell said before revising his self-assessment. “Older. Let’s say ‘older’.”
Before answering the question of whether his body will be able to handle the rigors of the 82-game season, Mitchell first must acclimate himself once again to the more preparational aspects associated with being an effective defenseman within the Kings’ systems.
“Just like any other player you ask right now, ‘How do you feel out there?’ ‘OK.’ Right? It’s timing, it’s just getting not so much the wind, your strength in the battles,” Mitchell said. “I decided earlier I find this time of year is always difficult for me and my game, anyways, and why I say that is just more about reads and more about reading the rush and reading situations and containing and [being] positionally sound. That’s kind of my forte and strengths. I didn’t have the soft hands like a Kopi or speed of a Gaborik or whatever, and so my strengths are that. This time of year it makes it sometimes a little bit difficult because there’s a lot of young players, and we’re all making mistakes at this time of year, so reads are just a little bit more difficult. I think as camp moves on and it starts to break a little bit, I think everyone starts to feel a little bit more comfortable. So I think that’ll get better. Heck, part of hockey, too, is when there’s broken plays, making the right reads and so at this time of year there’s quite a few of those because we’re all not totally sharp. So it puts you in those awkward positions that you can kind of handle those as best you can, so it’s been good.”
Mitchell won’t play in either of the split-squad games against the Phoenix Coyotes on Sunday, and Darryl Sutter has been approaching the upcoming preseason schedule with a tiered caution in regards to when he could see his first NHL action since June 11, 2012.
“I kind have got a schedule for him, talked to him about it,” Daryl Sutter said. “He scrimmaged today, and you just kind of go from there and keep sort of ramping it.”
So did he put together the “schedule” together with input from Mitchell?
“Yeah, cause I told him about it,” the coach joked. “But it’s logical. I’m not going to throw [him] into the fire. He’s got to ramp it up…When you’re 36 and haven’t played a game in 14 months, and he wants to be in game situation, but game situation was more today for him. So, I don’t know. I like the way the preseason schedule is with only seven games, and then the breaks in it.”
“Once you go along, there’s gaps in it where we’ll start sorting the team better, and then that’s when those guys will play more.”
Mitchell, who noted that he’s a “’77” that emerged from a scrimmage against several players born in the 1990’s, approaches his return with a broad, weathered view.
“When you’re young, you just think you look invincible and you’re going to play forever and nothing really catches up, so when you get older, you just realize how lucky of a gig it is. And sometimes that’s life in general. Something gets taken away from you for a little while, and it makes you appreciate it a little more. I’m just enjoying it and I’m just going to keep working hard and keep improving.”
Banner image: Dave Sandford / NHL