Defenseman Mitchell looking for a confidence boost on Blackhawks' road trip

Few things are worse for up-and-coming NHLers than worrying about every little mistake.

Was that the right decision in the defensive zone? Is that penalty going to cost us? Two turnovers in two shifts — I'm sitting the next game unless I pick it up ...

These aren't uncommon thoughts for players like Blackhawks defenseman Ian Mitchell, who has been trying to become a full-timer for two and a half years.

“You're out (of the lineup) and you're thinking, ‘When's my next chance gonna be?' Then when you do get in, it's, ‘I don't want to come back out,'” said Mitchell, who scored his first goal of the season Sunday in a 2-1 loss to the Kings at the United Center. “It's that pressure where each play maybe carries a bit more weight.

“You feel it more. I think that's the hardest part. It's hard to just let yourself play.”

Mitchell, who stayed in the lineup when the Hawks began a three-game road trip Tuesday night at Vancouver, has appeared in 13 of 29 games since making his season debut on November 19. A wrist injury in camp kept him out for the first six weeks.

The Hawks selected Mitchell in the second round of the 2017 draft and watched him develop at the University of Denver.

After carving out a fairly consistent role as a rookie in 2020-21, Mitchell spent most of last season in the AHL. He notched 11 goals and 24 assists in 57 games for Rockford, but the coaching staff also emphasized working on his defensive game by taking him off the power play for a while.

“At the time I didn't look at that as a positive,” Mitchell said last May. “But if you want to be an NHL player you have to accept whatever role the team sees in you.”

That role has been inconsistent at best during coach Luke Richardson's first season. Before Tuesday, Mitchell had 1 goal and 3 assists while averaging 16 minutes.

Richardson understands how fringe players believe they must be almost perfect, but the rookie coach is doing his best to ease Mitchell's mind.

“We try to be open about what we're doing with the guys, so they're prepared and they're not ... overthinking,” said Richardson, who played 1,417 games over 21 seasons as a D-man from 1987-2008.

Mitchell's parents, girlfriend, aunts, uncles and grandparents have all encouraged him during this herky-jerky campaign.

“They've been in my corner the whole time,” Mitchell said. “There's been some bad days for sure, but trying to have more good days now than bad.”

Said fellow defenseman Connor Murphy: “Mentally it's hard because you want to get in a groove of playing and have a partner and have games under your belt. You can't mimic that in practice, especially when we have a lot of off days.”

Richardson has been alternating the 5-foot-10, 173-pound Mitchell and the 6-3, 194-pound Phillips quite a bit since Phillips made his debut December 21. The strategy makes sense, considering Mitchell tends to thrive against smaller squads while Phillips brings a much-needed physical presence against big, banging teams like St. Louis, Seattle and Colorado.

Mitchell's goal Sunday came with 3:15 remaining and cut Los Angeles' lead to 2-1. He sneaked into an open spot in the middle of the offensive zone, accepted a perfect pass from Max Domi and unleashed a wrist shot that zipped past Phoenix Copley.

“It was good he was up in the play at the end and scored,” Richardson said. “And I saw him again down the slot a little bit later on when (Andreas) Athanasiou had the puck on an entry, so he was making the right decisions there. That's good to see.”

Now with Phillips being reassigned to Rockford on Monday, we'll see if Mitchell finds some confidence before the Hawks' off week (January 29-February 4).

No matter what, the 24-year-old understands there can be bumps in the road. The key to smooth them out over time.

“I'm just trying to keep my head down and when I do get an opportunity to play, try to make the most of it,” Mitchell said. “Obviously it's difficult to kind of come back in and out with your consistency and your rhythm of play.

“But that's the nature of trying to break into the NHL. You're not going to get in right away, so I have to do the best that I can with what I'm given.”

• • •

Ian Mitchell's pro stats

2020-21 Blackhawks: 39 games, 3 goals, 4 assists, 7 points

2020-21 Rockford (AHL): 5 game, 0 goals, 1 assist, 1 point

2021-22 Blackhawks: 8 games, 0 goals, 1 assist, 1 point

2021-22 Rockford (AHL): 57 games, 11 goals, 24 assists, 35 points

2022-23 Blackhawks: 13 games, 1 goal, 3 assists, 4 points

2022-23 Rockford (AHL): 5 games, 2 goals, 4 assists, 6 points

NHL totals: 60 games, 4 goals, 8 assists, 12 points

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