EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Despite the fact that Willie Mitchell was wearing a T-shirt that read "Surf Canada" during exit interviews this week, the veteran defenseman was very much willing to talk about his desire to remain with the Los Angeles Kings next season.
Mitchell is one of three L.A. blue liners that will become an unrestricted free agent in the impending weeks. He’s 37 with a long injury history, but he cleared his medical exit with a clean bill of health Tuesday and he was still an extremely valuable piece of the Kings’ Stanley Cup-winning defense. Mitchell says as long as he’s contributing, he’s not ready to hang up the skates.
"If you’re asking me if I want to play hockey again, yeah. To be honest, probably this playoffs was the best I’ve ever played," he said. "I don’t want to play when I’m laying it up. I want to only play when I feel like I’m making a difference out there with my teammates and I played lots down the stretch and lots down the playoffs and I played well."
After missing all of last season recovering from two knee surgeries, Mitchell returned to play 76 games with 12 points, a plus-14 rating and 58 PIM. He suffered a hamstring pull in the Kings’ opening-round playoff series in San Jose but returned for Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. Strong on the forecheck and the penalty kill, he found his way back into the lineup immediately.
He has yet to formally sit down with general manager Dean Lombardi, but he’s confident that he will get a deal done soon. If not, he’ll hit the free agent market July 1.
"There’s lots of moving parts, I get it," he said. "There’s Willie Mitchell the player, there’s a salary cap, and then as a GM you structure a team so hopefully you can have success over a long period of time. I’d like to continue playing because I just like that element of feeling like you’re making a difference. And when I don’t have that anymore, when I’m not out there when the game is on the line or we need a big penalty kill or something like that, then probably that’s when I’ll decide to reinvent myself and get on to the next."
Matt Greene and Jeff Schultz will also become free agents this summer.
Greene is at the end of a five-year contract, and although he’s influential in the Kings’ dressing room as an alternate captain, his results on the ice haven’t been so stellar. No one can ever fault Greene for his effort, but he was scratched throughout much of the postseason. He and Schultz were pressed into service in Anaheim when both Mitchell and Robyn Regehr were injured, and the results were solid. Greene remained in the lineup even once Regehr was ready play, with head coach Darryl Sutter preferring to go with a lineup that continue to win, but Schultz didn’t play past the Western Conference semifinals.
With the emergence of Alec Martinez and Manchester D-man Brayden McNabb – a key piece in the Marian Gaborik trade – believed to be NHL ready, the future for Greene and Schultz is uncertain.
What to do with the Cup
In 2012, Mitchell’s day with the Stanley Cup was a sophisticated production in his hometown of Port McNiell, B.C., that included time on a boat and a trip up a mountain followed by champagne and a ceremony with the Namgis First Nation. Mitchell and his family threw a party that only Mitchell could orchestrate, but this time he would like it to be less of a production.
This year, his day with the Cup might even be the one thing Mitchell is decidedly not – cliche.
"One of the things I always said I didn’t want to do with it, just because everyone does it and it’s really quite boring is, I’d like to grab my buds and my mates from back home who I played road hockey with and get a road hockey game going to play for the Cup," he said.
It was something he said he would never do, but he got his crazy day out of the way. A simpler, more low key day would also allow his 88-year-old grandfather, a former player himself, to have some time with the Stanley Cup as well.
"I think one of the coolest things with the Stanley Cup is just being able to talk to the Cup keepers about the history of it and all of the different players, kind of the unique things about it," Mitchell said. "I’d basically, like to let my grandfather have the opportunity to ask all of those questions."