Willie Mitchell hasn’t come out and said that his playing days are officially over, but it doesn’t appear likely the Florida Panthers captain will continue his career after his latest concussion.
Mitchell, who turned 39 this past Saturday, is coming off of a season in which he missed all but 46 games. Mitchell missed the final 36 games with what was originally listed as a lower-body injury, but it was later revealed that he was sidelined with concussion issues that continued to plague him for the remainder of the campaign.
As the Panthers closed up shop for the season, Mitchell’s teammates and GM Dale Tallon spoke about the veteran blueliner’s career, and it seemed as though they were preparing to say goodbye to Mitchell. According to The Associated Press’ Tim Reynolds, Tallon said that he would be speaking with Mitchell about options for the future, whatever that may be. However, no comment made it seem more like it could be the end of the road for Mitchell than those from sophomore blueliner Aaron Ekblad.
"When I first talked to him and found out what was going on with him, we got a good cry," Ekblad said, via Reynolds. “Everyone experiences it at some point, that point where you can't play anymore.”
It wouldn’t be altogether surprising if Mitchell hung up his skates. He entered the season as one of the 10 oldest players in the league, and his role in Florida was already becoming more limited as last season wore on. If he were to come back to the Panthers, he probably wouldn’t have earned more than a one-year deal, and that’s if the Cats even had a spot for him on a blueline that is looking to bring in some fresh faces and new talent.
That’s not to mention there were already rumblings before the post-season began that Mitchell may have played his final game. Tallon said in late-March that Mitchell had to “decide whether he can play or not,” and added the team wanted to keep his best interests in mind when it came to Mitchell’s long-term health. The most recent concussion was the third documented head injury of Mitchell’s career, though there may have been other concussions that went undocumented.
“Obviously, I haven’t been able to get out there and it’s really, really hard to be honest with you,” Mitchell told the Miami Herald’s George Richards on Sunday. “It’s quite emotional…I’m not a quitter and have never quit on anything in my life. So, with my situation, I’m just trying to see it through I guess you could say.”
If Mitchell was trying to see his contract through to the end, he has done that, as 2015-16 was the final season of a two-year, $8.5-million deal he signed with the Panthers in July 2014. Mitchell was named the captain in his first season, and has been an on- and off-ice leader for the team since his arrival.
In the event that this is Mitchell’s farewell, he will finish his career with 34 goals and 180 points in 907 career games, with another four goals and 16 points in 89 playoff games. Mitchell won the Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 and 2014.