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Ian Mitchell using college season to improve leadership, consistency before signing with Blackhawks

The Hawks’ top prospect remains committed to signing an NHL contract at the end of his season at the University of Denver.

Ian Mitchell is small for a defenseman, but he’s seen Adam Boqvist jump quickly to the AHL with a similar skillset.
Ian Mitchell is small for a defenseman, but he’s seen Adam Boqvist jump quickly to the AHL with a similar skillset.
Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

University of Denver captain Ian Mitchell still is planning to sign with the Blackhawks at the end of this season.

That’s one thing the Hawks’ top prospect, who theoretically could become an unrestricted free agent in 2021, wants to make clear.

‘‘Definitely, I want to sign with the Blackhawks, and [as] soon as I can do [so] is going to be the plan,’’ said Mitchell, a 5-11 defenseman. ‘‘But I just want to focus on winning a national championship for now, and whatever happens after the season will take care of itself.’’

Mitchell said he has kept an eye on the Hawks while leading the Pioneers to a 17-4-5 record and a No. 5 national ranking this season.

He has seen the immediate success rookie defensemen Adam Boqvist and Dennis Gilbert (to a lesser extent) have had making the transition to the NHL, and he’s encouraged about his outlook for next season because of it.

Mitchell also has witnessed the Hawks’ 11-5-0 streak entering the All-Star break, a stretch that has revived their playoff hopes. If the Hawks make the postseason, he’d love to join them after, ideally, a berth in the NCAA championship game April 11.

‘‘If they could be in a playoff run and they wanted me to come play games, that’d be special and something I definitely want to do,’’ Mitchell said.

In the meantime, Mitchell thinks he’s making progress in the areas he thought returning to college for another season — in spite of the Hawks’ attempt to persuade him to sign last summer — would help him with: leadership and consistency.

In terms of leadership, Mitchell was thrust from an alternate captain last season to captain of an elite college program this season.

‘‘As the year’s gone on, I’ve become more comfortable with it and learned more things about being a leader — when it’s time to speak up or just sit down and let the team figure it out for themselves,’’ he said. ‘‘That only can be learned through experience, so that’s something that hopefully will be able to translate to the next level for me.’’

When asked broadly about Mitchell’s play this season, Denver coach David Carle gave an answer Mitchell would be happy about.

‘‘He’s more himself consistently, if that makes sense,’’ Carle said. ‘‘He’s making a high-level impact on a more regular basis, which makes him good and obviously helps his team win.’’

Offensively, Mitchell has worked on improving his one-timer and his deceptiveness along the blue line, using tactics such as head fakes to create open lanes. His point production is up slightly, from 0.69 points per game last season to 0.81 this season, and he already has matched his goal total (six) of last season.

Defensively, he has improved his gap control and stick use.

‘‘He’s doing a good job pushing forwards to where he wants them to go, and, in turn, that’s helping him make better reads and create more turnovers,’’ Carle said.

‘‘[I’m] being more patient inside the dots and waiting for the puck to arrive before I swing into and make contact with the opposing forward,’’ Mitchell said.

For now, he’s making those strides to become an even better player for his college team. Come April, however, those skills should be translating to the top of the Hawks’ prospect pool.

‘‘I’m definitely in a good spot to hopefully make a step to the next level soon,’’ he said.