Blackhawks realizing Ian Mitchell is most effective when allowed to be himself

Mitchell’s defensive weaknesses remain an issue, but he can still succeed in the NHL — and even cover up those weaknesses somewhat — when encouraged to play to his offensive strengths.

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Blackhawks defenseman Ian Mitchell fights for the puck.

Blackhawks defenseman Ian Mitchell has played better with more regular appearances lately.

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

DALLAS — The Blackhawks have given Ian Mitchell plenty of tough love the last couple of years.

Kevin Dean, the Hawks’ assistant coach who now oversees the defense, is included in that approach. But his message makes sense.

“I tell Mitch, ‘You have to move pucks, and you have to create some offense,’ ” Dean said recently. “ ‘Because if you don’t, we’ll find a 6-3 guy that can defend, and probably defend a little better than you.’

“We’re encouraging him to really play his game: move pucks and skate and get up ice and be assertive and get pucks to the net and be active in the O-zone because that’s his strength as a hockey player. No matter what you do, you can’t lose that.”

In other words, Dean and the Hawks have realized they need to let Mitchell be Mitchell.

“Does he need to work on his defending? Yes,” Dean said. “He needs to be stronger. But don’t lose who you are as a player, and then let’s work on defending a little bit harder and stronger. Hopefully, when that all comes together, you’ve got a good hockey player.”

Former Hawks general manager Stan Bowman, whose endless hype about Mitchell probably created unrealistic expectations, evidently didn’t realize how difficult Mitchell’s NHL transition would be in the defensive end.

Even in his third pro season, he still has a tendency to take poor angles and get beaten to the inside around the net. His lack of physicality (as Dean referenced) and 5-11, 193-pound frame are disadvantages in board battles, too.

The Hawks have realized in the last few months, though, that the best way to cover up those weaknesses is to emphasize his strengths. The more puck possession he has, the less his opponents have and the less they can exploit his defensive shortcomings.

“The other message for him is, ‘Be clean with the puck,’ ” Dean said. “If you get a chance to break the puck out and not have to defend, you better do it. Because [if you don’t], the laws of physics will take over, and you’ll be getting pinned against the wall by guys 15 pounds heavier.”

Mitchell, who turned 24 last month, has taken that approach to heart.

“When I get an opportunity at the offensive blue line or when the puck’s on my stick, that’s when I can really make a difference for our team,” he said. “That’s always been what I’ve excelled at.”

In 10 appearances since Jan. 18, he has created more offense, averaging 6.2 shots and 3.1 scoring chances per 60 minutes at five-on-five. That’s up from 5.8 and 0.8, respectively, in his first 11 games this season — and up from 5.6 and 1.4 in his eight NHL games last season.

It’s the best he has looked since the beginning of his 2021 rookie season, when he started strong but declined in March and April.

“[I just have] more confidence, more comfortability,” he said. “Having that state of mind — I’m calm and composed out there — has helped.”

Unfortunately for him, a regular spot in the lineup has remained elusive. He was a healthy scratch again Wednesday against the Stars for the fifth time in 15 games since Jan. 18 and the 16th time in 35 games since his Dec. 1 AHL call-up.

That’s because coach Luke Richardson seems opposed to playing Mitchell and prospect Isaak Phillips simultaneously. Richardson said Wednesday that he believes the veteran defensemen deserve their right not to come out of the lineup.

The acquisition of veteran right-handed defenseman Nikita Zaitsev from the Senators potentially brings more bad news for Mitchell.

But it’s encouraging nonetheless to see progress from Mitchell, even if the Hawks haven’t exactly indicated long-term dedication to him.

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