Florida Panthers captain Willie Mitchell hasn’t suited up since Jan. 18 and the initial belief was the veteran blueliner was out with a lower-body injury. It’s been revealed, though, that Mitchell has been sidelined with concussion-related symptoms, and there’s a possibility he has played the final game of his career.
Mitchell’s current bout with concussion symptoms marks the fourth time he has been officially sidelined with a head injury, and the third time since 2006, which includes a 46-game absence during 2010. It’s because of concussion symptoms that Mitchell, 38, may be forced to hang up his skates instead of returning the Panthers in time for the franchise’s first post-season appearance since 2011-12.
“Willie has to decide whether he can play or not,” Panthers GM Dale Tallon told the Miami Herald’s George Richards Thursday. “We want to make sure he doesn’t get hurt, we want to make sure there is no permanent damage. But this is up to Willie. We want to do what is best for him. That’s the bottom line. The doctors have said they’re concerned with his long-term health.”
Mitchell’s decision his future is expected to come in the near future, according to Richards, but there’s been no indication one way or the other about which way Mitchell is leaning. He has been spending time with the team, and Richards said Mitchell has resumed skating after stopping all activities when they first learned of the concussion symptoms.
When healthy, Mitchell’s role with the Panthers has decreased. In 46 games this season, he skated less than 20 minutes per game, which marked the first time since he has become an NHL regular that his average ice time has dipped this low. He’s contributed one goal and seven points, but his primary role has been as a defensive defenseman. Mitchell is in the final season of a two-year, $8.5-million deal with Florida.
“He’s a big part of this whole change we’ve had over the past couple of years,” Panthers center Nick Bjugstad told Richards. “He’s a big voice in this locker room, a great defensive-defenseman and all the guys have learned from him. It’s been tough not having him in the locker room and on the ice as well.”
If Mitchell was interested in returning, Richards was told the team would welcome him into the lineup, but it’s unlikely he would be a huge factor down the stretch. His spot in the lineup has been filled by committee and the Panthers have fared well without Mitchell, but he does have more playoff experience than almost any other blueliner in Florida. Only Brian Campbell, who has played in 97 playoff games, has played more post-season games than Mitchell, who has played in 89 games and won two Stanley Cups with the Los Angeles Kings.