For the Kings to enter this season as an improved hockey club – or at the very least on equal footing, following the loss of Rob Scuderi to the Penguins this summer - the health of Willie Mitchell is paramount.
He didn’t play in the team’s first pre-season game on Sunday, nor will he suit up for tonight’s game vs. the Ducks in Anaheim. However, he did participate in Saturday’s scrimmage and was encouraged by the results of what he saw as an important next step in his road to recovery.
“More and more stuff like (that) is what I need,” declared Mitchell. “You can only do so much in the off season. even the guys that are healthy, they can only do so much. They need games. You talk to any of the veterans, they’ll tell you, ‘I like to play in the games.’ That being said, I’ve been off 14 months, so practices aren’t a bad thing for me at this point in time, even though they are just practice. I guess it’s the next gradual step on towards playing the game. I said to someone the other day, our first day (of camp) we had defensive practice and probably about 20 times I was in foot races where I had to stop and go the other way. And if 20 times during a hockey game I’m doing that, then I’ve played a pretty bad hockey game. That means I’m out of position and not in a good spot. I was pretty happy about that and my knee handled that situation very well, where over the course of the game how I play the game, it’s a containment, timing, thinking the game- that’s my strength I think as a player. If it’s once or twice a game I’m in a situation like that, it’s a lot. A good game is where I’m not in many situations like that because it means I’m playing sound positionally. The fact that I handled all that – those situations they put us in just to get better – so, if those situations do happen, you can make a read on them. I was pretty happy with that. Really happy, actually. Just trying to enjoy every day. It’s a good spot to be at, considering where I was. Have fun with it with the guys and just work on my game – that’s all I can do. So work on my game and try to be the best teammate. We have a good team this year, a really good team, and that part’s really exciting. So I’m just going to worry about my little situation here just like I did all summer and just try to get better with it and be a good D partner for Slava.”
Returning to LA’s second D-pairing along side Voynov would be ideal. Yet, it’s something coach Darryl Sutter hasn’t committed to just yet, nor can he. For now, it’s just cautious optimism around Kings camp.
To hear Mitchell tell it though, all signs are pointing in the right direction.
“I’m feeling great, just like everyone else, trying to get timing, trying to get your feel. This time of year, you’re just trying to work on the simple things in your game – passing the puck hard, crisp, trying to get your reads. I’ve always found this time of year a tough time of year as it is. I’m sure the veteran players said that when I was 19 years old, coming in and running around everywhere. It’s not exactly the most positionally sound hockey, I think that gets better and better as camp breaks a little bit, more of the regulars. I think at this time of the year it can be frustrating because there are some really good plays and then there are some plays that just break apart real quick. Everyone deals with that this time of the year. Like I said, just trying to work on strength in these situations where I’m battling and stuff like that, because reality is I haven’t done that in 14 months. I can skate all summer and scrimmage in summer league, but that’s not a game where you’re stopping, starting, battling, strong on pucks. So just trying to get better and better at that just like I do every other training camp.”
Although Mitchell was medically cleared on the first day of camp, Sutter shared that the team didn’t put Mitchell through the full battery of tests that other players received. So, which ones did he skip?
“Just like box jumps and stuff like that,” said the 36-year old defenseman. “There’s no point. In 14 years, I’ve done a few tests in my time. Any of the veterans that’s been around – I think Reggie’s like 900 and something games. Ask him how many tests he’s done. So, tests don’t scare you once you’ve played for a little bit. I just didn’t do that. They had bike tests so I didn’t do those, just because you’re spinning and all of a sudden you’re dropping a bunch of weight so you’re putting a lot of pressure on the joint. Whether it could handle it or whether it couldn’t handle that is anyone’s question, but why take the risk of that? There’s no point. Things are going great, skating well, doing all those things. It’s just not worth the risk.”
Only Sutter and Mitchell probably know when number-33 will see action during the pre-season. However, when Sutter was asked over the weekend if he and Mitchell came up with the schedule together, the coach quickly quipped – “Yeah, cause I told him about it.”
Jokes aside, Mitchell said the pre-camp testing decisions were a collaborative effort.
“I worked with Mayer Sports – my guy John Mayer, who kind of worked with Kobe (Bryant). I chatted with him about it. There’s lots of ways to go up a hill, you can walk it, you can fly up to the top, take a helicopter, sprint it. There’s lots of different ways. So, I’ve been working really, really close with them. They put me in a good spot and they don’t want to worry all the hard work they’ve done and I don’t want to ruin all the hard work I did. I sat here all summer and spring, for that matter, and dedicated myself to making sure my knee was in the right place- getting the right rest, doing the right progressions. I’m not going to sit there and go do a test… I’ve always fitness tested really well and to go do a test just to appease someone that I worked hard this summer… I know I worked hard this summer and everyone around here knows I worked hard this summer and took the necessary tests to get ready this year. Like I said, it probably started with myself and John and I talked to Darryl and the staff and they had no problems with that. They’ve been around, they know what I’ve done this summer. It was a smart move by everyone.”
Being medically cleared for camp was one small step for Mitchell.
And when he finally returns to the line-up, it will be one giant leap for the Kings.
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