When Dean Lombardi met with the media via conference call following the Kings’ exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, one of the hot topics was the status of Willie Mitchell and his possible return for the 2013-14 season.
Mitchell missed all of last season following knee surgery and has one year left on his $3.5-million contract.
There have been some signs of encouragement as Mitchell recently tweeted out video of himself skating at the Kings Training facility in El Segundo:
“It’s a day-to-day thing, in terms of his progress,” said Lombardi. “I guess it’s safe to say that he’s at least making progress, but the problem is it’s the same progress he made before. Until we get to those final stages, you’re not going to know for sure.
“So, if you had asked me this maybe six months ago when we went through the process the first time, I would have been encouraged. But, given that we had two setbacks once he got to a certain point, I’m certainly not as optimistic as I would have been before. But that said, he’s clearly making progress again. But, we still have to go to another level and push [the knee] to see if it responds. Your guess is as good as mine right now.”
Even if Mitchell is given medical clearance to play, because he was 35 years old at the time of signing the contract, the Kings are not able to use one of their two compliance buyouts to rid them of his salary. If Mitchell is still not medically cleared to play, the Kings could place him on Long Term Injured Reserve and his salary would not count against the cap.
Ideally, a healthy Willie Mitchell would be a welcome sight for the Kings next season. He was arguably their best defenseman when they won their first ever Stanley Cup in 2012. His return would also compensate for the impending loss of unrestricted defenseman Rob Scuderi, who is all but certain to find employment with another NHL team.
Mitchell averaged 25-plus minutes of ice time in 2012, the second most minutes amongst Kings defenseman behind Drew Doughty, and led all defenseman in time on ice when the Kings were shorthanded. At 6’3″ and 208 pounds, his size and strength made life tough for the opposition in front of the net.
With the regular season still a little more than three months away, time is on Mitchell’s side. There’s no question his return would once again be a big boost in the Kings’ chances for another deep playoff run and a legitimate shot at their second Stanley Cup.