Help is on the way for the Chicago Blackhawks’ defense.
Ian Mitchell looks to captain the Denver Pioneers to a national championship and improve his game before he turns pro. When he joins the Chicago Blackhawks, he will be a major upgrade.
With the announcement that Kirby Dach will remain with the Blackhawks the whole season, and Adam Boqvist’s recent stint on the team, the youth movement is officially underway for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs the past two seasons.
Dach, Boqvist, and the arrival of Alex Nylander highlighted the Hawks’ prospect camp in July as names who were competing for spots on the pro roster. However, one other big name in that group wasn’t going to be part of the equation, at least for this season.
Ian Mitchell, 2nd round draft pick (57th overall) by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2017, had already committed to returning to his college team at the University of Denver for his junior season. Now, the captain of the Pioneers, Mitchell, in a statement on Denver’s website following last season, said that he wanted to return to college and work on his game:
"“In the past few days since our season ended, I have had the chance to reflect on the year and the season our team had. It became clear to me during that time that I did not feel ready, mentally or physically, to leave Denver. I believe this is the best place for me to become a better hockey player, and as a team, we have an opportunity to do something very special next year. I would like to thank the Chicago Blackhawks organization for being so supportive and respectful of my decision to remain in school and continue my development. I am looking forward to next season.”"
It’s clear that Mitchell wants to take that next step this season and become a dominant player every time he hits the ice, which is a reason the Blackhawks drafted him so high. Though, even coming into his freshman season, he was a high caliber player that opposing teams needed to worry about.
For Chase Munroe, a sophomore goaltender at conference foe, Miami University of Ohio, at the time Mitchell was in his first season at Denver, he thinks Mitchell lives up to the hype.
"“He’s always been a solid defenseman,” says Munroe. “He’s hard on pucks and makes it tough to force turnovers on him. He makes the right plays and has really smart hockey sense with or without the puck. Whenever he was on the ice, everyone knew the name and knew the threat he could be.”"
Even if it seems that Mitchell has been as solid of a defenseman for the past few years, maybe part of his reason to return is because he wants to win a national championship.
Denver won it in 2016-2017, though that was the season before Mitchell came in, and they lost to Ohio State University in the quarterfinals in 2017-2018. Last season, they came up just short again, losing to the University of Massachusetts in the Frozen Four. This season, Mitchell hopes to lead the Pioneers, currently ranked No. 2 in the nation and No. 4 in their conference, to the promised land.
Coming into Friday’s game against the University of North Dakota, Ian Mitchell is second on the team in scoring with 10 points (3 goals, 7 assists) and is tied-fourth among NCAA defensemen. He’s played in all 10 of Denver’s games and is a 3 ± rating with 23 shots on goal, 9 shot blocks, and one penalty (hooking).
For Mitchell’s three goals, one has been on the power play, one has been shorthanded, and one has been at even strength, a game winning goal against University of Alaska-Fairbanks on 10/6.
On Friday, November 15, Mitchell and the Pioneers took their 8-1-1 record (0-1-1-1) up against North Dakota (7-1-1, 2-0-0-0) in a home game and conference matchup. While choosing where to commit in 2017, Mitchell chose Denver over North Dakota, so it’s always one he circles on his calendar.
The game finished up in a tie of 1-1 for national standings, but North Dakota won in three-on-three overtime to take the victory for National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) conference standings.
Mitchell had no points and three shots on net, one that was a sure goal had the North Dakota goaltender not made an incredible save on it in the second period. He had an even ± rating, added two blocks, and one penalty (tripping) that North Dakota scored on in a matter of seconds. Not a whole lot came from Mitchell’s statistical part of Friday’s game, but his play with and without the puck is really where his presence is felt.
Ian Mitchell plays a very solid two-way game and has the ability to skate the puck up the ice, with good puck control that he uses to hang onto it for a second or two longer to make the play. His confidence shows when he does this, because he’s not looking to get rid of the puck as soon as he gets control of it. Mitchell is always looking to make plays, even when he’s under pressure.
This was shown in a pro-level play he made that can go unnoticed to those not watching the game closely. He was going back to retrieve the puck in the corner of the defensive zone, with his back turned to two oncoming forecheckers. He quickly got ahold of the puck, spun around, and passed it off to his forward curling around in the low circle. This type of play is what separates good hockey players from elite hockey players.
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Off the rush, Mitchell maintains a good gap on the forwards and doesn’t allow them a ton of space to work once they enter the zone. He communicates well with his teammates on the ice, too, even pointing to opposing players that are coming in as a second wave to be picked up as a defensive assignment.
Ian Mitchell’s awareness in all aspects of the game makes him a threat at all times, especially when he jumps into the play, adding to the offensive rush. This is why he’s the quarterback of the first power play unit as well as utilized in penalty kill situations.
Mitchell did have a few noticeable turnovers, one that was more of a redirect pass to his winger that didn’t smoothly break the puck out and allowed North Dakota an extended shift in the offensive zone.
A few of his teammates on the ice went off for the change when they were finally able to clear it to the neutral zone, but North Dakota quickly transitioned it back on the attack.
Mitchell, having a long shift already, made a more aggressive play at the blue line while his teammates were finalizing a line change. This play stopped the zone entry and a dump in opportunity for North Dakota, allowing Mitchell to finish up the line change.
This was a very good play in this situation and even more impressive at the end of a long shift. Some defensemen would opt to take a conservative approach in allowing the opposing team to gain entry in the midst of a line change, but Mitchell saw an opportunity to relieve some of the pressure.
Overall, Mitchell played a really solid game and is a dynamic defenseman with an ability to play in all situations and be successful. He’s a key piece to this Pioneers team and will be a big reason why this team can make a run for the national championship in April.
As for next year, some believe Ian Mitchell will be ready and decide to turn pro. In the past, some college players turn pro and decide not to sign with the team that drafted them. If there’s any indication from Mitchell’s comments in the past about the situation, Blackhawks‘ fans can feel more confident that he’ll sign with this team.
It would be an ideal situation, for Ian Mitchell and the Chicago Blackhawks, if he did turn pro and sign a contract next season. Though the Blackhawks’ current defensemen have been playing better as of late, Mitchell would be a huge boost to this aging group. The way he’s utilized at Denver is exactly what can be expected from him when he fully transitions his game at the pro level.
Though it’s tougher to transition from the college schedule of playing two games a week on Friday and Saturday, the style of play is known to help a player develop and transition smoother. Cale Makar and Charlie McAvoy are great examples.
Mitchell will be able to continue developing his game because of how he’s continued to grow each year at Denver. Head coach, David Carle, sees his development and the improvements made coming into his third season at Denver and reinforces the importance Mitchell has on this team.
"“He’s been our best player all year,” said Carle in a statement to Blackhawk Up. “It’s good to see his progression as a leader and a player in all facets. He’s been really good for us.”"
As for Saturday’s game, it was a more disappointing outcome for the Pioneers as they lost the game 4 to 1. Mitchell had no points, four shots on goal, three shot blocks, and a -1 ± rating.
The Pioneers look to bounce back against Western Michigan in another set of home games next weekend.