Blackhawks’ Ian Mitchell, returning from injury, faces time pressure on NHL breakout

Ian Mitchell’s long-term destiny with the Blackhawks could be determined this season. So a significant injury at the very beginning of training camp was the worst possible thing for him.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened.

“It was brutal,” Mitchell said. “All summer you train for [camp], get ready for it. And then you feel like it’s all for naught, because you’re out for an extended period of time and you lose your conditioning.”

The 23-year-old defenseman suffered a tendon injury in his left wrist that ruled him out for an estimated six weeks on Sept. 22, the second day of camp.

It has been six and a half weeks since, and although Mitchell did return to Hawks practices last week wearing a non-contact jersey, he still hasn’t returned to game action. He described the current issue as a “pain tolerance thing,” which is improving.

The injury was identical to the one Caleb Jones suffered near the end of camp last season, which derailed an equally important moment in Jones’ own NHL career.

“It’s not all that uncommon in hockey,” Mitchell said. “You’re using your wrist all the time and [the tendon] pops out. It’s frustrating, but there’s nothing you can really do about it.”

Once he does return to action, Mitchell will face some considerable pressure to quickly take the next step in his career.

He was a favored prospect under ex-general manager Stan Bowman. New GM Kyle Davidson doesn’t have the same preexisting investment in Mitchell, however, and Davidson has also proven eager to move on from many of Bowman’s other failed projects.

Worryingly, 5-11, 175-pound Mitchell falls into a mold of defensemen — undersized puck-movers — that Bowman valued much more highly than Davidson. The Hawks have shifted their focus toward bigger, stronger defensemen since the regime change.

Given that he’ll turn 24 in January, that his entry-level contract will expire next summer and that he has played in just 47 NHL games so far, Mitchell is furthermore on the cusp of falling out of the “prospect” tier and into the “depth defensemen” category. That’s not a good place to be.

Mitchell still has the rest of this season to alter his trajectory, though. He believes his experience as Rockford’s heavily relied-upon No. 1 defenseman last season — in addition to his summer work on improving his breakout passes — has him poised to break out this winter.

“Last year in Rockford was really good for me,” he said. “I was playing at a really high level. Just being able to be in one spot throughout the year and grow my game was important for me. … I was able to settle in. I didn’t have to do too much, and I could just play my position and let my skill shine through.”

Hawks coach Luke Richardson said last week he wasn’t sure whether Mitchell, even once medically cleared, would start in the AHL or NHL. His destination will depend on the health of the Hawks’ current “D” core.

But if Mitchell is to remain in Chicago beyond this year, he’ll probably need to fight his way into the NHL sooner rather than later.

“Coming into this year, I’ve had a ton of confidence,” Mitchell said. “My goal [was that] this was my year to make and lock down a roster spot. So my mindset now is that it’s just delayed, and I’m just starting a bit later. I still have a ton of confidence, and I feel like I can help this team.”

Note: The Hawks activated Petr Mrazek (groin) off injured reserve Monday but placed fellow goaltender Alex Stalock (concussion) on injured reserve, retroactive to Nov. 1. The Hawks will likely provide an injury update on Arvid Soderblom on Tuesday, when they’ll resume practicing after taking Sunday and Monday off.

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