The name of the game for the Chicago Blackhawks this season is rebuilding and development. Those two things have become abundantly clearer as they have only two wins in their last 18 games. In the spirit of the Blackhawks needing to stick to those two things, they need to focus on their young talent, and one of them is defenseman Ian Mitchell. He has gotten pushed aside this season and has not gotten an extended look, but he should.
Mitchell’s Blackhawks’ Tenure
To give some insight into Mitchell’s tenure with the Blackhawks, he was drafted in the second round of the 2017 NHL Draft from Denver University. Former general manager Stan Bowman spoke highly of him as being important for the future. When asked about his game, he stated, “He dominated the games I saw at Denver this year. He’s such a good skater, very involved in the play. He [did] a little bit of everything for that team as their captain. I think it bodes well [for] how he’s going to transition to the NHL. I think his game lines up with exactly how we want to play. He’s a fun player to watch.” He signed his three-year, entry-level deal in July 2020, but the tenure hasn’t been as smooth as hoped.
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During the 2020-21 season, he made his NHL debut, appearing in 39 games and registering seven points. It was a respectable rookie outing for him, but the following 2021-22 season, he was sent down to the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League (AHL) after appearing in three Hawks games to start. He saw some call-ups in the winter but only appeared in eight total games that year, with a minus-3 rating. However, he excelled in Rockford. He totaled 35 points in 57 games (11 goals, 24 assists), and was a minus-2 while being the team’s first-pairing defenseman. Even though he wasn’t standing out at the NHL level and was getting pushed out by players like Riley Stillman and Erik Gustafsson, it was encouraging to see him find his form from his time in Denver.
Fast forward to this season; he started in Rockford and made it hard for the Blackhawks to ignore him. He had five points in three games (two goals, three assists) after missing the start of the season due to a left wrist injury he suffered before training camp. Therefore, the Blackhawks recalled him on Nov. 18, sent him down six days later, and then recalled him again on Dec. 1 after defenseman Jarred Tinordi went on the injured reserve with a hip injury. Therefore, his usage in Chicago has been a whirlwind.
Mitchell Deserves Extended Look
NHL players need to work for playing time, and Mitchell is well aware of that and has mentioned that in the past. Typically, players earn playing time by how well they are playing at the AHL level, and it seemed like that was the direction the Blackhawks were heading in with the recalls, but they haven’t been quick to want to utilize him.
With Mitchell’s two call-ups, he has been eligible to play in 13 games, but he has been a healthy scratch for most of them and has only suited up for seven games. In that time span he has recorded two points and is a minus-6 while averaging 16 minutes of ice time. What makes the situation even weirder is that Tinordi was placed on injured reserve again with a facial fracture on Dec. 18, which would lead some to believe that it opens up a spot for Mitchell. Yet, the team decided to call up defenseman Isaak Phillips from Rockford, who was his defense partner with the IceHogs. This brings more uncertainty for his playing time going forward.
The Blackhawks keep adding more on defense when they should be looking closer at Mitchell. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Blackhawks general manager Kyle Davidson is not as high on Mitchell as Bowman was, as the team is leaning towards bigger defensemen, and at 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, he doesn’t fit Davidson’s vision. That notion alone could affect his time at the NHL level this season, but the proof is in the pudding. He has earned playing time. He had two strong stints in Rockford and deserves a chance to put it all together on the big stage. This season, he registered six points in five games (two goals, four assists) and was a plus-6.
Mitchell might not be the strongest, physical guy in Chicago, but he can provide a boost where no one has been able to thus far: the power play. Both of his goals this season have come from the power play, and he was boasting a 22.2 percent shooting percentage with the IceHogs. The Blackhawks’ power play is ranked 18th in the league with a 21.9 percent success rate. Head coach Luke Richardson tried him in the second unit against the Nashville Predators and Columbus Blue Jackets on Dec. 21 and 23, and he recorded a shot against both teams. So, the Blackhawks should continue to give him opportunities to see what he can do.
Blackhawks Need to Let Prospects Take Over
Even though Mitchell sustained some success this season, he carries some uncomfortable stats. Although he has only appeared in seven games for Chicago, his goals-against per 60 minutes is third-worst on the team at 5.3. He also has four giveaways and no takeaways, but he did have five blocked shots his last two games, and eight overall this season. He has to work through those struggles at the NHL level, but he can only do that if he gets consistent playing time. With the Blackhawks’ defense core struggling so much, there isn’t a reason why he shouldn’t be in the lineup.
Jack Johnson and Caleb Jones are a combined minus-8 in their last four games, and everyone on the Blackhawks’ defense is a minus this season except for Jake McCabe, who is a plus-2. The Blackhawks already substituted Jones for Mitchell the last two games. Therefore, they can keep Mitchell in and rotate Jones and Johnson out until Tinordi returns. The core is crowded, so they can make it work.
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The whole notion of a rebuild is to see what you got with your prospects, and the Blackhawks have to see what they have in Mitchell as he will be free agent at the end of this season. He may or may not work out for them moving forward, but they could allow him to audition for another team and possibly tout him as a trade deadline piece come March. Or, he may find his game and be a good fit for them amidst their troubles.
All-in-all, the Blackhawks, with their league-worst record, are not fighting for a playoff spot, and have nothing to lose by playing Mitchell. They don’t need him to be elite; they just need him to play his game, which is an offensive defenseman. He seems to be getting more comfortable, as he recorded an assist against Columbus. He even mentioned to The Athletic in November, “I was telling myself this is my great opportunity. There are a lot of other guys waiting for this chance, but I never want to go back to Rockford.” (from ‘Blackhawks’ defense carousel continues as Ian Mitchell steps in, Caleb Jones steps back,’ The AthleticNHL, 11/18/2022)
The Blackhawks need a spark, and a young, 23-year-old defenseman who is eager to prove himself in the NHL could bring them just that.