Almost Back: Ian Mitchell is Ready for His Opportunity to Help the Blackhawks

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Almost Back: Ian Mitchell is Ready for His Opportunity to Help the Blackhawks

Chicago Blackhawks

I’ve been a big fan of Ian Mitchell since the Blackhawks drafted him in the second round (No. 57) of the 2017 NHL Draft. And it’s not that difficult to understand why:

  • Mitchell went to the University of Denver as a true freshman the year after DU won a national championship and was immediately slotted on both special teams and as a top-pair defenseman for the Pioneers.
  • He put up really good offensive numbers in all three seasons at DU, wore an A as a sophomore, and was their captain as a junior in 2019-20.
  • He had 89 points (18 goals, 71 assists) in 116 games at Denver.
  • At the end of his third collegiate season, Mitchell played for Canada at the Spengler Cup, a tournament usually filled with veterans and older players.
  • So generally speaking, he was an offensive defenseman, who played (what I considered to be) a fairly mature game for a kid coming out of the AJHL.

My hopes five years ago were that he could be an impact defenseman sooner than later in Chicago.

When he signed with the Hawks before the 2020-21 season, Mitchell joined an organization that we can now look back at and acknowledge wasn’t doing a good job of putting prospects in a position to succeed. Stan Bowman’s regime — with his hand-picked head coach, Jeremy Colliton — rushed way too many players to the NHL and Mitchell was one of them. He appeared in 39 NHL games in his first professional season, one that wasn’t at all a normal hockey season because of the pandemic.

Last year, his second pro season, some thought Mitchell could be a player down the depth chart on Chicago’s blue line. But the upheaval in the front office opened the door for a reset button on the organization’s developmental approach, and Mitchell became the first player to really, intentionally get purposefully used in Rockford in a way to make him truly ready for the NHL.

Last year, Mitchell skated on the IceHogs’ top pair in 57 games, posting 11 goals and 24 assists, while being used in just about every situation. The Blackhawks wanted him to work on his all-around game, and he did just that in almost a full season with Rockford (only eight games in Chicago).

With a new coaching staff led by a former defenseman in Luke Richardson, I was excited to see how he could fit into the Blackhawks’ plans. Mitchell appeared to be poised to find a niche on the NHL roster next to a collection of veterans; plus, the depth in Rockford made his ascent to the NHL more appropriate.

So when the Blackhawks announced Mitchell had suffered a wrist injury that would cost him the first month or so of the regular season, I was bummed. He paid his dues last year, and even with Seth Jones and Jack Johnson on the NHL roster, I thought his offensive ability would be a nice compliment on Chicago’s back end.

But, hey … Mitchell is back skating now, and took off the non-contact jersey on Tuesday for a real, full practice. Here’s what he had to say (after skating with the guys) about how tough it is to get back into the flow after hoping to get a good look this year.

“It’s not the way I had [the start of my season] planned out for sure,” Mitchell said. “But it’s in the past now. I leaned on my family a lot. I wouldn’t say it was easy going thru that watching from the sidelines. Not it seems like I’ll be back soon and that’s exciting and I can get my season starting.

“It’s been tough missing an extended period of time to start the season but it’s nice to get back into real practice and feel out the body contact. Hopefully I can get in some games here; I’m not sure what the plan is yet with when I’ll be back or where I’ll be playing but it looks like it’s finally over.”

After practice, Richardson said Mitchell would probably get some run in Rockford to get back into the flow of games, and that makes sense. The Blackhawks do have a need for an offensive defenseman at the NHL level with Seth Jones (hand injury) out, but there’s no real reason or need to rush Mitchell. Again, the new front office is going to be cautious with their players and make sure when they get to the NHL they’re ready.

Mitchell said he’s been able to talk to Caleb Jones a lot during his time off the ice. Last year he suffered an injury very similar to the one Mitchell is coming back from now, and they’ve been able to discuss some of the issues Mitchell might have. Mitchell said he’s confident he can be an impact player once he’s back because he watched Caleb return and have a solid season last year.

Another source of help for Mitchell has been the number of other young bodies on the NHL roster. Alec Regula (aka “Reggie”) and Mitchell have been close since they jumped into the professional ranks together a couple years ago. He told me Regula and a few of the other guys he’s played with in Rockford have been good to be with while watching from the press box and around the rink while he hasn’t been able to participate.

When Mitchell is ready to get back on the NHL ice, what does he bring to the table? He self-scouted himself a bit.

“I think I move the puck well, getting back and getting pucks out and letting my skill shine on the offensive blue line when that opportunity comes. At first I’ll just be trying to play simple and get my legs back under me. I’m not sure when I’ll be getting back in the lineup here with the Blackhawks but I’d assume I’ll probably get down in Rockford and play a bit to get going.”

I’m hoping he can get the legs back and find a groove in Rockford so if/when the Blackhawks are ready for him at the NHL level he can take advantage of the opportunity and show what he’s got. It’s been a long road for Mitchell with a turn this season he didn’t anticipate, but now he’s ready to put behind him.

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Author: Tab Bamford

Tab is the Lead Blackhawks voice for BN. He is the author of two books about the Blackhawks, most recently "Chicago Blackhawks: An Illustrated Timeline" (Reedy Press, 2021). Find him on Twitter at @The1Tab