SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — The “C” stands for captain.
In Willie Mitchell’s case, it may as well stand for Cup.
There are 319 people who have appeared in at least one game for the Florida Panthers, and Mitchell isn’t among them. But when the season starts at Tampa Bay on Thursday, Mitchell — a two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Los Angeles Kings, getting to hoist the trophy again this past June — takes over as the Panthers’ captain, the surest sign that leadership is why he’s with Florida.
“He’s a champion,” Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said. “He’s a good player, good defenseman. He’s a shutdown defenseman who can give you some valuable points. He’s a very good defenseman. I mean, he’s solid.”
The 37-year-old Mitchell signed a two-year deal with the Panthers this summer, not long after being caught somewhat off-guard that his time with the Kings came to an end on the night they won the Stanley Cup last season.
Florida is valuing youth right now and in many ways is building through the draft. But the chance to add a veteran like Mitchell was too good for Florida to ignore.
“He can do a lot,” said Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo, who played with Mitchell earlier in their careers at Vancouver. “He understands the game. He knows when to be aggressive, when to hold back. If he can bring that to the younger guys, that’s going to be a huge plus. He knows how to keep the puck out of his net. He knows how to defend. As a goalie, that’s what you ask for.”
Mitchell is five games shy of 800 for his career, not counting the 89 playoff games — 38 of those coming since 2012. The Panthers, in their 21 years as a franchise, have played 38 playoff games, total.
Given that, it’s no wonder that the Panthers made him the eighth captain in team history. He likens the decision to come to Florida to the one he made when he joined Los Angeles; in his words, he sees a young, up-and-coming team that he felt he could help mold.
“I thought it was the right fit for myself, personally,” Mitchell said.
He’s a good fit off the ice as well. Mitchell is personable and quotable, and he said he’s eager to take on the challenge of turning Florida into a winner.
Then again, challenges have always been welcomed by Mitchell. He was recruited to Clarkson University in tiny Potsdam, New York — where he played for Mark Morris, now a Panthers assistant coach — and decided to join the Golden Knights in part because of a dislike for flying.
Mitchell’s flight to Montreal, the nearest major airport to Clarkson, wasn’t particularly enjoyable on that recruiting trip, so he committed and avoided more plane trips to other schools. He’s still not comfortable on planes, probably somewhat because he was once on a jet that had a door fall off its hinges just before takeoff.
That all said, he’ll soon become a pilot, mainly to help feed his passion for fly fishing in remote areas in his native British Columbia.
“Seaplanes, amphibious aircraft, you need that to get in and out of those places,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell understands that the Panthers might not be playoff-ready out of the game. The team was 27 points out of the playoffs last year and hasn’t won a playoff series since 1996.
But he figures, in time, things can turn around — and the Panthers obviously hope he leads that charge.
“I don’t know it all,” Mitchell said. “I’m still learning the game at 37. But I just want to be someone trusted as a teammate, to be there for teammates. That’s what I’ll try to do. And when you’re having fun as a group, results kind of follow.”
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