EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Willie Mitchell looked downward and began to form a knowing, almost mischievous smile. It's a common pose for the pensive Mitchell, one that says he is fully engaged in thought.
Down the hall from the Los Angeles Kings' locker room, Mitchell got that look when asked if he's thought about pulling on his Kings jersey for the first time since Game 6 of the 2012 Stanley Cup Final on June 11, 2012.
Not for a preseason game, but for real, at the Kings' home opener Oct. 7.
"It's nuts, man. It's really nuts," Mitchell said. "The preseason, I won't lie, it will be good to do that. But for me … all of a sudden you get to the home opener and you're putting the jersey back on. That will mean a lot, for sure.
"A lot of work goes into it. People don't see that. I'm just one of many players in the League who have had different injuries [that] you question whether you're going to get back from. I put a lot of time, a lot of effort into it. I'm just one guy … but I would feel pretty damn good to put that jersey on."
It's been a precarious road back for Mitchell, 36, who missed last season with a career-threatening knee injury, but his return could result in another long spring for Los Angeles.
Four months ago the Kings were staring at a defensive double-whammy because Rob Scuderi was departing while uncertainty remained over whether Mitchell could reboot his career. But Mitchell rehabilitated to get himself back into Kings camp and has not had a setback.
"It's a heavier and heavier workload as we go here, and as long as it handles that, then everything's great,” said Mitchell, who played his second preseason game Tuesday. "It's just a matter of no fluid in the knee. So far, so good, and hopefully it continues on that path."
While he lacks the star power of Drew Doughty or the offensive freelancing of Slava Voynov, Mitchell has been an integral part of general manager Dean Lombardi's defense-first philosophy since Mitchell arrived in Los Angeles in 2010.
Without Mitchell, the Kings fell from fourth in 2011-12 to 10th last season on the penalty kill and from second (2.07) to seventh (2.38) in goals-against per game. Doughty especially missed Mitchell in the Western Conference Final, when the Chicago Blackhawks threw their speedy, skilled forwards at the Kings.
"I think if we had him in that Chicago series, I think it would have been a different series," Doughty said. "They had so many good lines. They had three really good lines and I think we really missed him on one of those pairings shutting down some of their top guys.
"I think that last year, a lot of the reason why we didn't get back to the Cup Final was because we didn't have Mitchie [Mitchell]."
Toward the end of last season, Lombardi raised the possibility that Mitchell's career could be over. He had two significant setbacks from December 2012 surgery to clean up cartilage, and then had an arthroscopic procedure at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota in which doctors "actually didn't cut anything the second time -- they just went in to take a look," he said. Mitchell also underwent platelet-rich plasma therapy and eventually progressed.
Even at his lowest point, Mitchell said he wasn't ready to call it a career.
"Never," he said. "I think the first time when I came back and there was a little bit of rust, on everyone’s accounts, [but] I never felt my knee wasn't going to get better. I just felt that it was rushed. Maybe after my second procedure there was a little bit of doubt in there.
"I think what happens is that you get a little carrot in front of you, and that's what happened for me is after the second procedure. I had the proper rest, which I probably should have had after the first surgery. I was starting to see my day-to-day life getting to where it was normal again, and then it was like, 'OK, let's take the next progression,' which is start doing some exercise and start training."
Mitchell made it a point to counterbalance his rehab. Around 4 p.m. every Friday his wife, Megan, would get out of culinary school and the two were off on a weekend trip: Palm Springs, Santa Barbara, Big Sur, Carmel. There was a tuna fishing trip in San Diego and a wood-burning oven pizza class in Sonoma.
The highlight was a wilderness resort on Vancouver Island that was a glamorous form of camping.
"You're camping, but you're eating four-, five-star food," Mitchell said. "They call it glamping."
Mitchell's teammates already know him as an environmentally conscious nature lover from British Columbia, so they got a kick out of his adventures.
"Mr. Organic, eh?" said Colin Fraser, who also is from B.C. "He doesn't eat farmed fish, so you know he's real lean. … He's a save-the-trees B.C. guy."
At the same time, teammates knew how difficult it was for Mitchell to miss the game. Mitchell, unfortunately, is used to it after a concussion sustained during the 2009-10 season effectively ended his Vancouver Canucks career.
Kings coach Darryl Sutter slowly is working Mitchell back in and has paired him with former partner Voynov.
"I'm looking at him like he's just a guy who hasn't played in a while and, at his age, I want to see him get back into the flow of it," Sutter said. "It's got nothing to do with injury. I mean, he's basically been through this once before, so now we're going to see what he can do at this age."
Time helped Mitchell in the summer because all external pressures were off. He rehabbed aggressively, if only for peace of mind for what comes up once the puck drops for real.
"I just didn't want to look in the rearview mirror come this time of year, and I go on the ice and let's say it does swell up," Mitchell said. "I can't question it. I put it all out there."
Author: Curtis Zupke | NHL.com Correspondent