IceHogs defenseman Ian Mitchell has his eyes on the prize: A return to the Blackhawks
The road to becoming a successful NHL defenseman is rarely a smooth one.
It's a lesson many of the Rockford IceHogs are learning as they attempt to one day carve out a consistent role on the Blackhawks.
In Ian Mitchell's case, this season has been a true test of his character and ego.
Ever since he was drafted in the second round in 2017, Mitchell's arrow always seemed to be pointing up.
He could have left Denver University after his sophomore year but returned hoping to win a national championship. After COVID killed those dreams, Mitchell inked a three-year deal with the Hawks on July 15, 2020. He more than impressed as the 2020-21 campaign got underway and earned coach Jeremy Colliton's trust to the point where he was playing 17-plus minutes a night.
But one rough game led to another and it wasn't long before Mitchell's confidence took a serious hit. It's a common issue for young D-men, especially when they're playing on mediocre teams and facing wildly talented offensive foes like Tampa Bay, Florida and Carolina on a consistent basis.
When this season rolled around, Mitchell could read the writing on the wall. The Hawks brought in Jake McCabe, Erik Gustafsson, Seth and Caleb Jones, and they already had veterans Calvin de Haan and Connor Murphy in tow.
All of that roster maneuvering meant Mitchell was headed to the AHL.
"That definitely kind of hits you because your dream is always to play in the NHL," said Mitchell, who appeared in 39 games for the Hawks as a rookie. "Then you see that's probably not going to happen this season. It sucked.
"(Playing) in the American League is never something any player wants or any player feels good about. ... I definitely had to look myself in the mirror and say, 'Am I gonna pout about this or am I gonna use it to make myself a better hockey player?' "
There's no shame in spending significant time in the minors. Duncan Keith (154 games), Niklas Hjalmarsson (99 games), Nick Leddy (53 games) and Corey Crawford (255 games) all needed seasoning before becoming household names.
Mitchell -- whose IceHogs lost Game 1 of a best-of-five series to the Chicago Wolves on Thursday -- is definitely hoping to follow in their footsteps.
"This year has been really good for him," said Rockford coach Anders Sorensen. "It's hard to be a young D-man in the NHL and play regularly and 'develop' at the same time. That league is all about winning.
"Obviously you can develop there, but it's harder than it is down here because we can sometimes live with the mistakes a little bit and work through those situations with him."
Now, that's not to say this season has been all roses.
Very early on the coaching staff sat Mitchell down and told him point blank: We want you to focus on your defensive game. That meant no power play time and a boat load of defensive zone draws.
"At the time I didn't look at that as a positive," Mitchell said. "But if you want to be an NHL player you have to accept whatever role the team sees in you.
"I feel now my game has really rounded out to (where) I can defend at a really high level, but I still have all those same offensive tools that have made me an effective player in the past."
Mitchell proved that by leading all IceHogs defensemen with 11 goals, 6 of which did come on the power play. He even scored five times in five games from Feb. 4 to 15.
Of course, there will still be growing pains -- and one of them definitely came Thursday when the Wolves trounced the IceHogs 6-2. One miscue came early in the third period when Mitchell failed to control a puck near the goal mouth, leading to an easy goal for Stefan Noesen.
Mitchell, who did play eight games with the Hawks this season, is one of quite a few IceHogs blue liners who hope to make an impact in the NHL next season. They include: Alec Regula (15 games with the Hawks; 22 assists in 41 games for Rockford), Isaak Phillips (10 goals for Rockford), Wyatt Kalynuk (7 goals), Jakub Galvas and Nicolas Beaudin.
Mitchell admitted there's internal competition because there are only so many spots available on any NHL team, but that hasn't stopped the defensemen from becoming fast friends.
"We're really, really tight," Mitchell said. "One of the great parts about the team we have is that even though we are pushing each other, we're also able to have a great time together. That's what makes (us) really good, and hopefully that allows us to grow and all of us can then move on to become Blackhawks.
"I think that's going to bode well for the success and the culture of the team moving forward."
Season, team GP G A Pts.
2020-21, HAWKS 39 3 4 7
2020-21, Rockford 5 0 1 1
2021-22, HAWKS 8 0 1 1
2021-22, Rockford 57 11 24 35