After struggling as NHL rookie, Blackhawks’ Ian Mitchell embraces AHL possibility

“Of course you want to play in the NHL, and I want to do that,” Mitchell said. “But if I have to be in Rockford, then that’s great, too.”

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Ian Mitchell struggled at times during his 2021 rookie season.

Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Defenseman Ian Mitchell’s rookie season didn’t fully live up to expectations.

After three years of domination at the University of Denver, which elevated his stock from the 57th overall pick in 2017 to the Hawks’ unanimous top prospect in 2019 and 2020, Mitchell struggled to adjust to the relentless and unforgiving nature of the NHL.

‘‘It’s a tough league,’’ Mitchell, 22, said Friday, reflecting on last season. ‘‘You come in, and you don’t necessarily know what to expect as a rookie.

‘‘I learned you can’t cheat the game. If you get on the wrong side of the puck, even for a split-second, they’re going to be able to make a play behind you and there’s going to be a scoring chance. It’s about always being detailed with your positioning. That’s the biggest thing for me.’’

After playing in 32 of the Hawks’ first 34 games last season, Mitchell spent awhile on the taxi squad and in the American Hockey League down the stretch, appearing with the Hawks only twice between March 26 and May 1.

His underlying statistics weren’t pretty by the end of the season, either. His even-strength scoring-chance ratio sat at 42.7%, fourth-worst on the team and better only than fellow rookie defenseman Wyatt Kalynuk and already-traded forwards Carl Soderberg and Mattias Janmark.

‘‘When I was playing every night the first 30 games, I thought, ‘I’m starting to get into a groove,’ ’’ Mitchell said May 3. ‘‘But a couple [of bad] games, and you get rattled, get thrown off your game. . . . It was just mental. Every day, another game, another game, another game. I didn’t feel my body was wearing down, just the grind of the season takes its toll.’’

Mitchell returned to Denver this summer, training with a group of alumni to prepare himself for his first full-length pro season. He has been joined by an alum on the Hawks this season, too: forward Henrik Borgstrom.

But it looks increasingly likely that Mitchell will start the season with the Rockford IceHogs in the AHL. The last couple of semi-available NHL defensive spots seemingly have been locked up by Caleb Jones’ surprisingly impressive camp and Kalynuk’s placement as the quarterback of the second power-play unit.

And Mitchell’s aforementioned struggles last season cast doubt about whether he’s NHL-ready yet, anyway. He and Nicolas Beaudin, whose performance also fluctuated last spring, could learn from handling big minutes as the IceHogs’ presumed top defensive pairing.

‘‘[Ian has] a great attitude,’’ Hawks coach Jeremy Colliton said. ‘‘He played a bunch of games last year, and that was a great experience for him. But coming in, [there are] not guarantees as far as the role you’re going to get. We’ve got a bunch of guys fighting for that. If it doesn’t happen right away, it’s not a failure. Every guy has a different path. Going to Rockford is not a failure; it’s a place to continue to develop and build your game.’’

Mitchell emphasized that the likely send-down wouldn’t come as a disappointment.

‘‘Of course you want to play in the NHL, and I want to do that,’’ he said. ‘‘But if I have to be in Rockford, then that’s great, too.’’

Colliton wasn’t kidding about Mitchell’s attitude. Molded by his personal connections to the Humboldt bus-crash tragedy in 2018 in Saskatchewan, he realizes he’s ‘‘blessed to be playing hockey right now’’ in any form.

And with the Hawks’ newfound commitment to improving their defense, Mitchell understands he’s still an important long-term piece.

‘‘It’s just exciting for us young guys to have an opportunity to play on a really good team and fight for that spot,’’ he said. ‘‘Nothing is given around here; everything’s got to be earned. So it’s just going to make it that much more sweet when you do get that chance and earn it.’’

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