Ian Mitchell struggled at times during his 2021 rookie season. | Stacy Revere/Getty Images
“Of course you want to play in the NHL, and I want to do that,” Mitchell said. “But if I have to be in Rockford, then that’s great, too.”
Ian Mitchell’s 2021 rookie season didn’t fully live up to expectations.
After three years of domination at the University of Denver, elevating his stock from the 57th overall pick in 2017 to the Hawks’ unanimous top prospect in 2019 and 2020, Mitchell struggled to adjust to the relentless and unforgiving nature of the NHL.
“It’s a tough league,” the 22-year-old defenseman said Friday, reflecting on last year. “You come in and you don’t necessarily know what to expect as a rookie.
“I learned you can’t cheat the game. If you get on the wrong side of the puck, even for a split second, they’re going to be able to make a play behind you and there’s going to be a scoring chance. It’s about always being detailed with your positioning. That’s the biggest thing for me.”
After playing in 32 of the Hawks’ first 34 games, he spent a while on the taxi squad and in the AHL down the stretch, appearing only twice between March 26 and May 1.
His underlying statistics weren’t pretty by season’s end, either. His even-strength scoring-chance ratio sat at 42.7%, fourth-worst on the team and better than only fellow rookie Wyatt Kalynuk and already-traded forwards Carl Soderberg and Mattias Janmark.
“When I was playing every night the first 30 games, I thought, ‘I’m starting to get into a groove,'” he said on May 3. “But a couple [bad] games and you get rattled, get thrown off your game… It was just mental. Every day, another game, another game, another game. I didn’t feel my body was wearing down; just the grind of the season takes its toll.”
Mitchell returned to Denver this summer, training with a group of alumni to prepare himself for his first full-length pro season. He’s been joined by an alum on the Hawks this season, too — Henrik Borgstrom.
But it looks increasingly likely Mitchell will start the season in the AHL. The last couple semi-available NHL defensive spots have been seemingly locked up by Caleb Jones’ surprisingly impressive camp and Kalynuk’s placement as the second power-play unit quarterback.
And Mitchell’s aforementioned struggles last year cast into doubt whether he’s actually NHL ready yet, anyway. He and Nicolas Beaudin, whose performance also fluctuated last spring, could learn from handling big minutes as the Rockford IceHogs’ presumed top pair.
“[Ian has] a great attitude,” coach Jeremy Colliton said. “Obviously he played a bunch of games last year, and that was a great experience for him. But coming in, [there are] not guarantees as far as the role you’re going to get. We’ve got a bunch of guys fighting for that. If it doesn’t happen right away, it’s not a failure. Every guy has a different path. Going to Rockford is not a failure. It’s a place to continue to develop and build your game.”
Mitchell emphasized that that likely send-down would not come as a disappointment.
“Of course you want to play in the NHL, and I want to do that,” he said. “But if I have to be in Rockford, then that’s great, too.”
Colliton wasn’t kidding about Mitchell’s great attitude. Molded by his unique personal connections to the Humboldt bus crash tragedy, the Alberta native realizes he’s “blessed to be playing hockey right now” in any form.
And with the Hawks’ newfound commitment to improving their defense, Mitchell understands he remains an important long-term piece for the organization.
“It’s just exciting for us young guys to have an opportunity to play on a really good team and fight for that spot,” he said. “Nothing is given around here — everything’s got to be earned — so it’s just going to make it that much more sweet when you do get that chance and you earn it.”