When Ian Mitchell decided to return for his junior season at the University of Denver he had one goal in mind: win a national championship.
The Blackhawks defenseman prospect didn’t get that opportunity as the NCAA canceled the national tournament in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. He then decided to agree to terms on an entry-level contract with Chicago in April, as he had promised to do, with hopes of playing in the NHL when the season resumed.
But that’s unlikely to happen after NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly confirmed a recent report from The Athletic on Tuesday that it’s unlikely the League will change its stance and allow players like Mitchell to be signed for the 2019-20 season.
“I can tell you that as of right now, our position, and this is something we’re going to have to ultimately resolve with the NHL Players’ Association like so many other contractual issues, but our position, the League’s position right now, and our position with our clubs since the start of the pause, is no club is entitled to sign a current‑year contract,” Daly said during a Zoom call with reporters. “They are free to sign future‑year contracts, so for the 2020‑21 season and beyond, perfectly fair game.
“But it would be our position, particularly given the advanced date and given the fact it could affect a lot of the players who might now be able to play the balance of the season, it may be unfair to let them play the balance of the season. We’ve progressed past the trade deadline. Each team has kind of set its roster. Its roster reflects — and everybody will come back healthy, which is a benefit to the teams — its roster really reflects its efforts in the 2019‑20 season. And to add a couple of, for lack of a better term, ‘ringers’ when you’re going into the playoffs is not the best way for sports to proceed in our view.”
Normally, Mitchell, a second-round pick in 2017, would have been eligible to make his NHL debut as soon as he signed. Defenseman Cale Makar, who is one of the top candidates to win the Calder Trophy as the best rookie this season, did just that a year ago with the Avalanche in the second round of the playoffs after his UMass team defeated Mitchell and the Pioneers in the semifinals and fell to Minnesota-Duluth in the national championship game.
Mitchell, a right-handed shot, recorded career highs in goals (10) and points (32) in 36 games with Denver this past season. He also had a goal and an assist in four games to help the Canadian national team win the Spengler Cup in December in Davos, Switzerland.
Mitchell and the Blackhawks aren’t alone on this front with players who agreed to terms, but didn’t officially sign. Other players include right wing Grigori Denisenko (Panthers), left wing John Leonard and defenseman Brinson Pasichnuk (Sharks) and defensemen Scott Perunovich (Blues) and Alex Ramanov (Canadiens).
It’s not official quite yet as Daly mentioned the League needs to discuss the matter with the NHLPA. If the NHL’s position does not change, Mitchell’s three-year entry-level contract with a $925,000 salary cap hit will start for the 2020-21 season, which the NHL plans to play in full and could start as late as January.
“We believe 2020‑21 will be played in its entirety the way we play a normal season,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. “There’s no magic to starting in October. Our buildings, our markets can handle it. We can start in November, we can start in December, we can start the beginning of January if we had to. We’re going to be playing over the summer this year, so the answer is we’ll get through this season and we’ll make sure there’s enough of a pause between the end of this season and next, and then we’ll start up again.
“We will have to deal with that probably in a couple of months because we have to start working on a schedule, but we’re prepared to defer and delay the start of the 2020‑21 season by at least, if we need to, a couple of months.”