Blackhawks’ Ian Mitchell experiencing growing pains through his first 8 NHL games
Opponents have outscored the Hawks 8-2 with Mitchell on the ice, but his struggles are a result of lack of experience, not lack of talent.
The Blackhawks’ brass talked all fall about how the team’s young players would endure ups and downs in their development.
Through the first training camp and eight NHL games of his career, that certainly has been the case for much-hyped defenseman Ian Mitchell.
January started high for Mitchell but is on track to finish a little low. That’s the reality of nonlinear growth.
‘‘[There’s] lots to learn, but I think I’ve played pretty well these first six games,’’ Mitchell, 22, said Monday — before the Hawks’ back-to-back this week against the Predators. ‘‘I’d say a lot more good than bad to start. Definitely a lot of positive things to build on for the rest of the season.’’
The ensuing back-to-back was especially tough for Mitchell, however. The Predators’ tight-checking, defense-first system operates a bit differently than those of most teams — although the Blue Jackets, the Hawks’ opponent on Friday and Sunday, are relatively comparable — and it gave Mitchell some difficulty.
The entire Hawks defense committed numerous turnovers trying to exit the defensive zone. The nifty passes up the middle or to the inside often look good for a split-second and worked well against the porous Red Wings, but they were picked off regularly by the positionally sound Predators. Safer chips up the boards would have worked better in many cases.
That led to the Hawks spending far too much time pinned in their own end instead of moving the puck up the ice and into the offensive zone, where Mitchell is more comfortable at this point.
‘‘We defended pretty well; we just defended too much,’’ coach Jeremy Colliton said Wednesday about the first game of the back-to-back Tuesday.
The same was true for Wednesday.
Mitchell was on the ice for Roman Josi’s overtime winner Tuesday. His lackadaisical offensive-zone turnover a dozen seconds earlier gave the Predators possession, even though a miscommunication between Dylan Strome and Patrick Kane in coverage was far more to blame.
Mitchell then played a season-low 9 minutes, 47 seconds Wednesday, despite seeing the first 69 seconds of power-play time of his career. The Hawks dressed seven defensemen for the game, so a slight reduction was to be expected, but Mitchell played even less than Lucas Carlsson (11:50) and Nicolas Beaudin (9:50).
Through eight games, Mitchell has been on the ice for 40 scoring chances for and 51 against during five-on-five play, a 44.0% ratio that ranks 15th among 22 Hawks. The high-danger chances tell an even more lopsided story (six for, 20 against), as do the goals (two for, eight against).
The biggest reason for those poor results isn’t lack of talent but lack of experience.
Getting a feel for the quality and pace of play in the NHL and adjusting one’s game to those standards is a slow process. Josi, Steven Stamkos and Dylan Larkin — three of the players who have scored against Mitchell so far — are a lot tougher competition than the players he faced last season at the University of Denver.
‘‘When you go up against good players, they’re going to make plays sometimes,’’ Mitchell said. ‘‘I’m just trying to learn how good the best players in the league are. That’s been the biggest thing for me: just learning and adjusting to that. I’ve definitely been on the wrong side of them a couple of times, but I’m learning, too.’’
Mitchell’s heavy emphasis on learning is correct. He said Colliton and assistant coaches Sheldon Brookbank and Tomas Mitell have given him lots of feedback, and he has received video of his shifts to review upon returning to the hotel each night.
This 2021 season is most about developing the Hawks’ young players, and Mitchell is one of the most important of them. That is happening, but there will be some bumps along the way.