The Vancouver Canucks are proceeding as if injured defenceman Willie Mitchell is out for the remainder of the regular season and NHL playoffs.
Mitchell is suffering post-concussion symptoms, has missed 28 games, and, according to a source with knowledge of the situation, it is highly doubtful that he will return at all this season, even if the Canucks head on a long Stanley Cup run.
"That's a reality we are facing right now," captain and goaltender Roberto Luongo said. "We're looking at it as if he is not going to play, and we're going to move on as a team. And if he does, well, that will be a great bonus for us."
The Canucks are poised for a third Northwest Division title in four years, and are effectively locked into the third seed in the Western Conference playoffs. With six regular-season games remaining, the aim is to get to the finish line with a healthy defence corps, particularly if Shane O'Brien's banishment is permanent.
Mitchell, a native of Port McNeill, B.C., hasn't skated since Jan. 19, and may have played his last game with his home-province team. He turns 33 later this month, and can become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Canucks brass was cool to an extension even before the injury because of an ongoing effort to get younger and more offensively oriented defencemen. The sides agreed not to talk contract during this season.
Mitchell ranked as the team's best defenceman over the first half, but since he suffered the concussion on a check from Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin on Jan. 16, the Canucks haven't been destitute. They've gone 18-8-2, including a six-game winning streak immediately after Mitchell's departure, and have allowed 2.75 goals per game.
But no Mitchell means the Canucks could be in a real pickle come the playoffs, particularly against the likes of the Detroit Red Wings or Los Angeles Kings, two potential first-round opponents. Mitchell typically drew the opposition's top offensive forwards, players such as Kings centre Anze Kopitar, or Detroit forward Henrik Zetterberg.
Minus its chief shutdown defender, head coach Alain Vigneault said the Canucks have compensated by becoming a "shutdown-by-committee" team, relying on Sami Salo, Alexander Edler and Christian Ehrhoff to match up against the opponent's top scorers.
"Those are quality defencemen who can play big minutes against top performers," Vigneault said. "They're going to have to continue."
Salo missed three playoff games last year with injury, and is notoriously brittle. Edler has eight points in 10 career postseason games, but is minus-two with eight penalty minutes. Ehrhoff, whose offensive game is ahead of his defence, was a part of San Jose's first-round collapse last season.
Behind them, Kevin Bieksa has struggled since his return from an ankle laceration in mid-March. Aaron Rome, a 26-year-old journeyman, has impressed management while logging 15 minutes per game, but he is in his first full NHL season and has played just two playoff games. Andrew Alberts, the team's only trade deadline acquisition, is currently rounding out the third pair without distinction.
The Canucks were not particularly deep before this week, and one more injury could be cause for alarm thanks to a surprise scenario with O'Brien. He is not practising, playing or travelling with the team after a series of incidents, including showing up late to practice on Monday.
The defenceman's career in Vancouver is drifting, plagued by weight gain and tardiness, and the uncertainty surrounding his ability to contribute this season won't end Sunday, when the Canucks decide whether to reinstate him.
At his optimum, O'Brien is among the team's six best defencemen, someone who shouldn't be fighting for a regular spot in the lineup. If he returns, at the very least, he should be a depth player, a game-worn reinforcement come the postseason. And if he is wholly exiled, that simply compounds concern along the blue line.