Second City Hockey’s 2021-22 preseason Blackhawks Top 25 Under 25 series ranks the organization’s top 25 players under the age of 25 by Oct. 1, 2021. The rankings are determined by a composite score from all four SCH writers. Each participant used their own metric of current ability and production against future projection to rank each player. All four ballots will be released after the series is completed.
In a season that devoted to the development of young talent, Blackhawks fans got their first look at highly anticipated defenseman Ian Mitchell. The right-handed defenseman, who was drafted in the second round of the 2017 draft (57th overall), saw limited action in 39 NHL games during the 2021 season.
Mitchell dropped from No. 5 on 2020’s list to No. 7 this year for a few reasons. First, there were a few pleasant surprises among Chicago’s young players last season that moved ahead of Mitchell. A second reason was Mitchell’s performance in a somewhat limited rookie showcase. Mitchell finished the 2021 season with 3 goals and 4 assists in 39 games, skating an average time on ice of 15:02 per game.
Mitchell started the season in a mostly unnoticeable (in a good way) role, skating bottom-pairing minutes. As the season progressed, though, he hit a bit of a slump. While Mitchell does have a high ceiling and a very usable skill set, he struggled with adjusting to the game speed of the NHL. When being caught out of position, falling behind a play or turning the puck over, Mitchell struggled to get back to his spot which led to 14 penalty minutes, a shot attempt share of just 43.53 percent while on the ice and 25 goals against (15 from high danger areas) while he was on the ice.
This is not uncommon for young defenseman, and Mitchell was 22 years old in his rookie season. Young defenseman take time to develop and to grow. Duncan Keith had some moments during his first two seasons that were not much to write home about. The same goes for a plethora of other great NHL blue-liners. In fact, Mitchell can be praised for at least reacting and making attempts to jump back into plays rather than being a pylon, even if said plays resulted in penalties or goals against. The only true way to learn and get better in these scenarios is to play. Mitchell needs consistent ice time at the professional level. Playing in Rockford against lesser than or equal AHL talent does not help his cause. A more regular partner wouldn't hurt either.
Mitchell’s skillset is still one that suggests he can become a regular contributor as an NHL defenseman. Despite his struggles defensively, Mitchell did flash his offensive ability with three goals, a success rate of 13 percent on 23 shots, showing that that Mitchell is able to find the back of the net when the opportunity is there. Mitchell has displayed a solid foundation and good natural instincts in the offensive zone. This, paired with an improvement in his reaction time and transition game will go a long way in the NHL.
Mitchell’s rookie season in 2021 was anything but ordinary. Between COVID-19 protocols and travel restrictions, fans first real look at Mitchell was restricted to just 39 games, against strictly divisional opponents and in front of virtually no fans. And while the Blackhawks don’t seem to be grading any of their rookies on a curve, Mitchell still has some boxes to check in his sophomore season to clear up what type of player he can truly become.
He does have some big shoes to fill — he is wearing Brian Campbell’s number, after all.