James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.

Panthers make it sound like Willie Mitchell’s career is over


SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) Willie Mitchell hoisted the Stanley Cup twice, played parts of 15 NHL seasons, even found a way back on the ice after a knee injury kept him out for more than a year.

This time, it looks virtually certain that he’s gone for good.

The Florida Panthers don’t expect their captain to be back next season, and one of his closest friends on the team essentially revealed Tuesday that he thinks Mitchell’s career is over. Mitchell missed the final 42 games of this season largely over concern what another brain injury would mean to his long-term health, and it’s been expected for weeks that this season would be the finale.

“Willie’s been a consummate professional,” Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said. “He’s been a great captain. He’s won Stanley Cups. He’s given his body and soul to the game. It’s hard. … It’s never easy and I’ll give him all the support he can get.”

It bears noting that no one in the organization came out Tuesday and flatly said that Mitchell is retiring, but the inference was obvious from many. Tallon said he and Mitchell will sit down and talk about several options for his future.

“When I first talked to him and found out what was going on with him, we got a good cry,” said Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad, an All-Star in each of his two NHL seasons to date. “It’s a tough thing for a player. Everyone experiences it at some point, that point where you can’t play anymore. … Willie’s really lucky to have had such a great career and do so many great things.”

Mitchell and Ekblad have a particularly close relationship, almost father-son-like in some respects. In Ekblad’s rookie season, Mitchell and his wife took the then-teenager into their home and made him part of the family.

“I’ve learned absolutely everything I’ve learned in the game of hockey, in the NHL, from Willie Mitchell,” Ekblad said. “Learning to be a good person and a good player. Can’t thank that guy enough.”

Mitchell was known to have concussions in 2002, 2006 and 2010, and has spoken plenty in recent years about trying to make the game safer. Mitchell turned 39 last week, and would be an unrestricted free agent this summer. He was drafted 20 years ago by New Jersey, and also appeared in NHL games with Minnesota, Dallas, Vancouver and Los Angeles before coming to Florida and being named the eighth captain in Panthers history.

He’s played in 907 games, logging 180 points and 787 penalty minutes with a career rating of plus-119.

“He wasn’t captain by accident,” Florida forward Shawn Thornton said. “You could see it, even in the playoffs, he wasn’t playing but he was around, doing whatever it took, all the intangibles. If anybody needed anything, nobody went without with him around. He was the ultimate teammate.”

Mitchell wasn’t with the Panthers on Tuesday when they cleaned out lockers, packed up their sticks and headed into the offseason. He had been skating with the team at times in recent weeks, but didn’t appear in Florida’s six-game first-round playoff loss to the New York Islanders that ended Sunday.

“I’ve played with Willie for many years now,” Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo said. “We go way back. Just seeing him every day and knowing that he couldn’t play, it’s something that makes your heart hurt. Just knowing how much he loves to be around the guys, especially this time of year. Being part of a Stanley Cup run is why we play the game. It’s tough to see one of your good friends and teammates go through something like that.”

NOTES: F Jaromir Jagr said his agent will have talks with the Panthers about his future. Jagr reaffirmed that he believes the future is strong for Florida. “Sometimes you have to suffer to move forward in the future,” said Jagr, who will spend part of his offseason training again in Las Vegas. Tallon said he’s confident that Jagr will be back with the Panthers. … Another free agent, D Brian Campbell, said he would like to return to the team next season. Campbell has been with Florida for five years, not missing a single game in that span.

NHL suspends Brayden Schenn three games for charging T.J. Oshie

Screen from NHL.com video

The NHL handed Philadelphia Flyers forward Brayden Schenn a three-game suspension for charging T.J. Oshie of the Washington Capitals.

With the Flyers’ season finished, the suspension will carry over to the 2016-17 season. Schenn will be forced to miss the first three games.

That’s an unusual situation, and being that Schenn is a pending RFA, it’s also unusual that we won’t know how much money Schenn loses from sitting out three games yet.

It’s interesting to wonder what kind of punishment Schenn would have received – if any – had the Flyers forced a Game 7. (The NHL tends to treat playoff games differently than regular season contests as far as suspensions go.)

Here’s the league explanation, which notes that Oshie returned to the game and that Schenn “launched” into Oshie, making “significant contact” with his head:

Losing ‘doesn’t really feel right’ for Kane, Blackhawks


The Chicago Blackhawks didn’t fold when the St. Louis Blues managed a 2-0 lead in Game 7, but they ultimately lost 3-2 anyway.

For a team with three recent Stanley Cup rings on their resume, moral victories probably don’t do a lot of good.

CSNChicago.com features full reactions from a downtrodden Blackhawks team on the same night that their season ended following an instant-classic series.

“It just doesn’t really feel right. Pretty quick right after to put everything right after into words. Obviously not the outcome we were looking for,” Kane said. ” … Obviously they got that goal there in the third and you’re trying to play catch-up again. Maybe one too many times in the hole.”

The Blues finally landed that last punch in a series that had a big-fight feel.

You won’t hear many players pin that 3-2 loss on this chance not going in:

Maybe more soul-searching (and finger-pointing?) will come with some downtime, but right now, the Blackhawks are sticking up for each other.

Chicago now must face something they haven’t seen very often in the past several years: a long summer.

Breaking through: Blues best Blackhawks in Game 7 to end epic series


They left us breathless, but the St. Louis Blues finally did it.

In an absolutely enthralling Game 7, Troy Brouwer‘s ugly-beautiful 3-2 goal stood as the clincher against his former team in the Chicago Blackhawks. The Blues slayed one huge narrative dragon by dispatching the defending champions in a 4-3 series.

It’s one of those series we’ll likely deem a classic in retrospect.

(In an amusing twist, this is the Blues’ first Game 7 victory since – wait for it – Joel Quenneville was their coach.)

It’s fitting that this thrilling, dramatic series ended despite an extremely close call.

The Blues will take on the Dallas Stars in the second round. With the San Jose Sharks awaiting either the Anaheim Ducks or Nashville Predators, it’s a changing of the guard in the Western Conference and NHL in general.

St. Louis stormed off to a 2-0 lead before Marian Hossa made it 2-1 to end the first period. Chicago tied it 2-2 in a back-and-forth middle frame before a tight, exciting third period that went the Blues’ way.

The narratives flip flop in many ways. Brian Elliott gets some credit as a hero, capping a strong series with 31 saves. Ken Hitchcock is vindicated … although plenty of people are still questioning his decisions regarding Vladimir Tarasenko‘s ice time.

For at least one round, the “choker” talk subsides. Some might bring it right back up if they struggle against the Stars after taking all four games in their season series.

Who knows how many jobs were saved by this breakthrough?

What we do know: it will be tough to top Blues – Blackhawks, but it will be fun to watch the remaining teams try.

Isles – Lightning Game 1 kicks off Wednesday alongside Preds – Ducks Game 7


The NHL’s doing something rare on Wednesday: starting the second round on the same night that the first round will end.

Many probably expected that night to only feature Game 7 between the Anaheim Ducks and Nashville Predators. Instead, that game will be accompanied by the first contest of the series between the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning.

Here are some other tidbits from the NHL:

  • The start time for Game 7 of the First Round series between the Anaheim Ducks and Nashville Predators has been set for 10 p.m. ET/9 p.m. CT/7 p.m. PT on Wednesday, April 27, in Anaheim. Outside of the local markets, the game will be televised on NBCSN in the U.S. In Canada, the game will be on Sportsnet and TVA Sports.
  • The 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs Second Round will begin on Wednesday, April 27, with one game when the Tampa Bay Lightning play host to the New York Islanders in Game 1 of their series at 7 p.m. ET in Tampa. The game will be televised exclusively in the U.S. on NBCSN. In Canada, the game will be on CBC and TVA Sports