Shortly after the Canadiens had been eliminated by the New York Rangers in the playoffs last season, the first two players out of the locker room at Madison Square Garden were Nathan Beaulieu and Torrey Mitchell.
The media were still waiting outside the door when Beaulieu and Mitchell walked past wearing expensive suits and the look of disappointment and frustration on their faces. They had both been healthy scratches for the biggest — and last — game of the season.
Five months later, Beaulieu is a Buffalo Sabre — traded by general manager Marc Bergevin on June 17 for a third-round draft pick — while Mitchell is fighting to keep his job with the Canadiens at training camp while heading into the final season of his three-year, US$3.6-million contract.
“I feel like every year, I come into training camp and I have to re-make the team,” Mitchell, 32, said after practice Thursday morning in Brossard. “I’m always sort of a bubble guy, fourth-line guy. At least the last four or five years, I’ve had that mentality where I have to come in and have a good training camp and have a good start and re-solidify my position and re-solidify the fact that I’m an NHL player. So that hasn’t changed for me.”
What changed for Mitchell was being made a healthy scratch three times by coach Claude Julien during the six-game playoff series against the Rangers. Only two other times during his 10-year NHL career had Mitchell been a healthy scratch — once during his early days with the San Jose Sharks and once with the Minnesota Wild, both times during the regular season.
“It was tough because we lost, so that leaves a bitter feeling for the off-season,” Mitchell said about sitting out Game 6. “But as the off-season goes on, you get over it and you start looking forward to the next season. But it was tough because I wasn’t playing in the most important game of the season and there wasn’t another game where I was going to get another chance.”
Mitchell said Julien never explained to him why he was taken out of the lineup.
“I think I took it the right way and was a good professional about it,” said Mitchell, who scored a goal in Game 4 against the Rangers. “It’s playoff time and things move quickly and you had a bunch of guys in and out of the lineup, at least on the fourth line. I thought the three games that I played in I did well and I don’t know if I felt like I deserved to be out of the lineup. But, ultimately, it was Claude’s decision and there’s no hard feelings.”
While Mitchell watched from the press box, Dwight King and Steve Ott — a pair of trade-deadline acquisitions — skated on the fourth line with Mike McCarron, who had never played in an NHL playoff game. With his speed, Mitchell would have been a much better fit on that line than the lumbering King, who is playing in the KHL after Bergevin gave up a fourth-round draft pick to get him. Bergevin gave up a sixth-round pick to get the gritty Ott, who retired after the season and is an assistant coach with the St. Louis Blues.
The Canadiens could also have used Mitchell’s faceoff skills late in Game 6 when they were trailing the Rangers 2-1 and pulled goalie Carey Price for an extra attacker. Julien had Alex Galchenyuk take two key faceoffs with Price on the bench and — not surprisingly — he lost both, leading to an empty-net goal by the Rangers to seal the series.
But that’s all behind the Canadiens and Mitchell is looking forward to a new season, but knows he’s in a tough battle to keep his job. One of the players he’s competing against is McCarron, who spent the summer in Montreal training with Mitchell.
“There’s no hard feelings there,” Mitchell said. “We’re pulling for each other. It sounds weird saying I’m pulling for him, but he’s a good kid and he worked really hard this summer and it was really refreshing for me to work out with a 22-year-old all summer and listen to his stories and see what he’s going through in his life and stuff. So we became pretty close and it was fun working out with him.”
Playing hockey is still fun for Mitchell and he’s hoping to earn another NHL contract beyond this season. Depending on how the battle for jobs goes at training camp, there’s a possibility he could end up traded like Beaulieu.
“It never really crossed my mind,” Mitchell said about that. “But I’m always prepared for it.”
But Mitchell, who grew up in Greenfield Park, not far from the Canadiens’ practice facility, remains proud to wear the CH.
“I’m still pinching myself at times, going ‘this is outrageous,’ ” Mitchell said while looking around the almost empty Brossard locker room after practice. “I love it.”