Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell, who missed all of last season because of a knee injury and needed a second procedure to correct problems related to his first surgery, said Sunday he’s ready to go “full speed ahead” when training camp begins this week.
“No tiptoeing into this. I’ve been scrimmaging with the guys, practicing, doing everything full steam and business as usual,” Mitchell said Sunday during the club’s Fan Fest event at Staples Center.
Players are scheduled to report to the team’s El Segundo practice facility for physicals on Wednesday and take to the ice on Thursday. Mitchell said that the physical exam will be his final hurdle but that he expects to be cleared to return to the ice and plans to play without a brace.
Losing Mitchell’s physical presence last season was a blow to the Kings, though they compensated well by acquiring Robyn Regehr from Buffalo. However, the departure of Rob Scuderi via free agency in July left another huge hole that could be ably filled by the return of a healthy Mitchell, who underwent platelet-rich plasma therapy — a treatment used by Lakers star Kobe Bryant — to help promote his recovery.
“Everyone knows where I’m at now. I’m doing good,” Mitchell said. “I’ve been skating since … around the middle of June. I was pretty slow then, just kind of casually, but starting to feel the ice. I was skating three, four times a week and I’ve been skating since then. I’m ready to go.”
As recently as mid-June, Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi said he considered Mitchell’s injury to be potentially career-threatening. A few days after Lombardi expressed doubts about Mitchell’s return, the 36-year-old defenseman used his Twitter account (@Willie_Mitch33) to post a video showing himself skating at El Segundo.
“I just wanted people to know, don’t count me out,” Mitchell said, adding that he had heard questions about whether he would be able to return. “I’m sure you guys doubted I’d be standing here today,” he said to the reporters assembled around him, “and I’m sure there’s a lot of people who doubted I’d be back and back with my teammates, and I used that all summer as my motivation to do the tedious work that rehab is, and get to the point where I’m back.”
Mitchell said Lombardi likely didn’t know the full extent of his injury — mainly because he didn’t know the extent himself.
“I’ve had a lot of conversations with Dean. Anyone who knows Dean, he likes to have conversations and he’s around the office 24/7 so that’s lots of conversations,” Mitchell said, smiling.
“I think he’s no different than me. He’s really happy and excited. I know that. I think he’s a little more excited this time because I think in the past I tried to come back and he was excited and thought I was going to be there and then the knee would blow up. Early in the summer he was cautiously optimistic. I’d say now he’s more optimistic and happy to see me out there scrimmaging and doing those things that I’d normally do.
“Dean wants to win. I understand that. I want to win. I think when you’re on the other side of the fence as a general manager, coach, etc., you want to push your players as much as you can. If someone’s on the line or something like that, sometimes maybe you feel like you need to push a little bit to get him over the line to get him out. I think maybe at that point in time Dean didn’t understand the significance of what was going on and even myself, for that matter, as far as the inflammation in my knee and all that.
“So I think after I went in and went out and saw the doctors I did see, and having another procedure after seeing those doctors, I think that gave him some significance as to why I wasn’t able to be there and give him a little bit more understanding with that. And now it’s business as usual.”
Lombardi was asked during a question-and-answer session with fans why he signed free-agent defenseman Jeff Schultz to a one-year, $700,000 contract if Mitchell is able to play. Lombardi said it was a reasonably priced depth move, no matter Mitchell’s status.
“I look at defense like good pitching — you can never have enough,” Lombardi said. “And our motivation comes from internal competition.”
Coach Darryl Sutter compared Schultz to Scuderi. “We think he fits in with our group and we’re going to give him every opportunity to play,” Sutter said.