Ian Mitchell finally has been added to the Blackhawks’ defense.
The team’s top prospect, who last summer spurned an NHL contract offer to return for his junior year at Denver, reportedly signed his entry-level deal with the Hawks on Friday.
The Hawks have yet to officially announce the signing, but the news was first reported Saturday by Barstool Sports. Mitchell politely declined an interview request.
The 21-year-old defenseman is a strong bet to make the NHL roster out of training camp next season and should provide much-needed talent and potential to the unit. He and Adam Boqvist form the future core of the Hawks’ back end.
General manager Stan Bowman believes Mitchell was NHL-ready entering this past season, and he tried to sign him during the Hawks’ development camp last July.
Mitchell, however, returned to college to fulfill his captaincy duties and pursue a national championship. The Pioneers were ranked fifth in the country entering their conference tournament when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the season.
He told the Sun-Times in January that he felt the extra year of college hockey improved his game.
“I’ve been an impact player for most games,” Mitchell said. “I’ve been someone that has created offense and helped my team to win games. That’s definitely a big thing that I’ve improved on this year. And defensively, too. I’m playing against other teams’ best players, so I’ve done a good job of limiting their offense.”
He cited his one-timer, gap control and patience as specific areas he’d worked to improve.
Had Mitchell returned for his senior year, he would’ve been a free agent able to sign with any NHL team next summer — a fact that gave large portions of the Hawks’ fan base anxiety.
But Mitchell held firm all along that he would sign after this season. The fast and seamless transition of Boqvist — along with guys like Kirby Dach and Dennis Gilbert — from junior hockey to the AHL to the NHL provided affirmation that the Hawks would have his best interests at heart.
“Seeing those guys getting an opportunity and have success with it is definitely encouraging for myself,” Mitchell said. “Hopefully I can do the same thing.”
Bowman remained effusive in his praise of Mitchell, too.
“He dominated the games I saw at Denver this year,” Bowman said in January. “It bodes well how he’s going to transition to the NHL. I think his game lines up exactly how we want to play. He’s a fun player to watch.”
Mitchell’s entrance into the fold creates a crowded contract situation. Slater Koekkoek is the only member of the defensive corps with an expiring contract.
But the Hawks presumably will still do whatever it takes to give Mitchell a clear path to significant playing time.