Thursday, August 31, 2006

Just What The Doctor Ordered

Willie Mitchell may be one, tough S.O.B. on the ice, but off it, he smiles probably as much as Jarome Iginla. Ben Kuzma (Vancouver Province) has more:

Whether skating with his new teammates or engaging in banter, Vancouver Canucks defenceman Willie Mitchell has had a wide grin plastered on his mug - think Jack Nicholson in Batman.

Of course, pocketing a four-year, $14 million US free-agent contract last month has a lot to do with it. So does being a native of Port McNeil on the north end of Vancouver Island who grew up idolizing such Canuck greats as Cam Neely, Stan Smyl, Cliff Ronning and Richard Brodeur.

And so does marrying Minnesota fiance Megan on Aug. 17 in the Napa Valley.

''I like having fun,'' the amiable Mitchell said Thursday following a skate at the Canucks' training rink in Burnaby. ''When I was in Minnesota, (coach) Jacques Lemaire always thought he couldn't understand me because I'm always having fun and he's all business.

''But I also take a lot of pride when the game starts. But around the rink, if you're not having fun why do it? It's a great occupation and it's pretty fun.''
Good thing he feels that way. With the departures of Ed Jovanovski, Bryan Allen and Nolan Baumgartner, Mitchell is expected to play a major role with the Canucks and their more defensively-responsible system.

He isn't new to that role - he played it for four-plus seasons with the Minnesota Wild before being traded to the Dallas Stars at the trade deadline last season.

When I asked Roy Mahlberg of Wild Puck Banter for his thoughts, he concured:

He was the core of our defense and was definitely missed when he left. Doesn't score, but a very solid player. Excellent on the PK; he was the main reason the Wild were no. 1 in PK percentage last year. After he left, the Wild allowed many more PP goals.
Considering the Canucks finished 17th in PK% and 21st in PP goals against last season, that's great news.

Remember 2003? Canucks fans saw first hand just how good a defenseman Mitchell is as he anchored the Wild defense and the team overcame a 3-1 second round playoff series deficit. More impressively, it wasn't just how well he played, it was the fact that he played at all.

Minnesota's Willie Mitchell played in his first Stanley Cup Playoffs last spring, a 25-year-old defenseman that quickly emerged as the defensive bedrock of his team. Growing up in British Columbia, Mitchell was reared on tales of playoff heroism. Despite his inexperience, he innately understood and, more importantly, respected the fine, and often blurry, line that has to be traversed during the postseason between playing hurt and playing injured.

In the end, he decided to do both.

In the first round, an epic upset of Colorado, Mitchell suffered a broken cheekbone during Minnesota's Game 7 triumph. Yet, he never missed a shift, never mind a game. In the next round, he donned an awkward shield to protect the injury and willingly laid his body on the line against the favored Vancouver Canucks.

Unfortunately, the protective shield broadcast to all involved in that series that Mitchell was vulnerable. The Canucks processed that knowledge, targeting him for an extra dose of punishment in order to exploit whatever edge was offered. As a result, Mitchell suffered a wrist injury.

Again, Mitchell did not miss any games, playing despite the fact that he was so hampered by the wrist that he had trouble dressing himself before and after each game. It wasn't so much stubbornness on Mitchell's part, as much as it was a sense of duty.

Mitchell wanted to be there for his teammates as they struggled along the playoff route. It is a sentiment shared by most, if not all, players in the postseason.

"I wanted to be in there, so (defensemen) Filip (Kuba) and Andrei (Zyuzin) and Nick (Schultz) didn't have to play 30 minutes apiece," he said at the time.

That selflessness paid off in the short-term as Minnesota sprung its second-straight upset, sending the Canucks home in a brilliant come-from-behind seven-game ouster.
Defense, leadership and character. After a tumultuous and inconsistent season, that's exactly what the doctor ordered.

Here's some final thoughts from Roy:

I love Willie Mitchell and was very disappointed when he was traded to Dallas. It will be harder to hate the Canucks now that Willie is there.
No Bertuzzi to boo; Willie on our side. What will Wild fans do?

[update: 08/31/06, 6:43 AM]

Elliot Pap (Vancouver Sun) also talks about Willie Mitchell today and Willie's growing up days in Port McNeill, BC. It's a good read. Learned what a 'burl' is too.

Comments/Questions: Feel free to post in the comments section or email me at gocanucksgo10 (at) hotmail (dot) com.

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posted by J.J. Guerrero, 6:28 AM


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