The name Ian Mitchell may not yet be familiar to most college hockey fans. But despite flying under the radar, the young freshman defenseman is one of the top young prospects in college hockey this year.
Mitchell was a standout in the Alberta Junior Hockey League last season with the Spruce Grove Junior Saints, earning the opportunity to be one of the rare Jr. A players to play for Canada at the World U18 championships. He would have been the highest drafted out of the AJHL since 2009 when he was selected 57th overall by the Chicago Blackhawks in last summer’s NHL Draft, had fellow AJHL defenseman Cale Makar not been selected fourth overall.
Since coming to the University of Denver as a freshman this year, Mitchell has been nothing short of outstanding, immediately earning first pairing defensive minutes and at least partially covering the gaping hole left by the graduation of Hobey Baker winner Will Butcher for the #1-ranked Pioneers. But he has done so out of the spotlight, as much of the focus is rightfully given to Denver’s superstar trio at forward of Henrik Borgstrom, Troy Terry, and Dylan Gambrell.
Despite being a bit overshadowed by players around him, Mitchell is an impressive prospect that bears watching. I took a closer at Mitchell’s game last Friday December 1st, as the Pioneers defeated Minnesota Duluth 1-0 in an NCHC road game in Duluth to get a better idea of how he is playing, and why he has been so effective.
In terms of size, Mitchell is listed at 5’11” 175 lbs., and that looks reasonably accurate given the eyeball test. He’s a shorter defenseman; it seems unlikely he’ll ever be six feet tall. He’s got a somewhat stockier build, but still shows the signs of physical immaturity one would expect from an 18-year-old. There’s room for him to add another 10-15 lbs. of muscle without sacrificing any quickness.
Size is far from a dealbreaker, but it is something that has to be made up for in other areas, and I think there are a couple key things Mitchell does to make up for his lack of size.
One of the ways Mitchell does that defensively is through a combination of good skating and strong positioning. His gap control defending one-on-one against a rush is exceptional. Twice early on in Friday’s game, he faced a rush in transition and yielded no ground, forcing UMD to dump the puck into the zone. On a third, he faced a rush from Karson Kuhlman, maybe the fastest player in the NCHC, and despite a great move by Kuhlman to try to catch Mitchell with his feet turned, Mitchell made a great recovery to get his stick on the puck and neutralize the scoring chance.
The second thing that I like is that he really competes. At one point in the third period, he was muscled off the puck along the boards behind his own net, something that is going to happen to him from time-to-time just as a matter of basic physics. But Mitchell made a great second effort on the play to get around the player with body position on him and ended up coming away with the puck. Some scouts tend not to value recovery skills, saying they favor players that don’t get in bad spots to begin with, but it happens, and a guy that can still make plays with a second or third effort can be just as effective. Also in the third period, he made an amazing sliding kick save to hold a puck in at the point on the power play, which created a couple Grade-A scoring chances as a result. Very few players have the agility and the motor to make a play like that.
The final thing he does is keep things really simple with the puck in his own end and keep himself out of bad situations. He anticipates pressure and sees the ice really well, so that when he retrieves a loose puck, he already knows where it is going before he gets to it, and it is gone as soon as he reaches it. He didn’t make any jaw-dropping passes or fancy one-on-one moves to elude pressure, but he quietly and effectively moved the puck up the ice and kept possession for his team nearly every time he touched it.
Surprisingly, it was on the offensive end where Mitchell could stand to develop a little bit more. He’s getting time on the power play with Denver’s big guns. 10 of his 11 points this year, all assists, have come on the power play(and the 11th came 4-on-4). Working the top of a point in an umbrella power play formation, Mitchell was trying to be aggressive in looking for his own shot as the opposition gave him a little extra space to better keep a eye on the likes of Borgstrom and Terry. His wrist shot from the point is just okay. He can get it to the net, but obviously it will improve given time to develop his upper body strength a little bit more. The bigger issue is knowing when to take that shot, and how to create shooting lanes for himself. He’s got the agility to create space for himself moving east-west. It’s just going to take time getting comfortable running the power play at game speed, and getting better at shooting from different angles.
Overall, even with the high expectations of a top-60 NHL Draft pick, it’s hard to complain about a player that has stepped in as one of the top defensemen on the consensus #1 team in the country. Mitchell is a very good college hockey player, and with another year or two of development, has the ability to be an elite player. With his frame and playing style, it will be impossible not to draw comparisons to Will Butcher, and though it’s hard to guarantee that level of success, the comparisons might not be that far off.
Mitchell is still a few years away from being ready for pro hockey. He’ll need to get stronger, and some time spent honing his craft on the power play will be beneficial. But he has potential as a very good second pairing defenseman at the NHL level that is capable of playing a lot of minutes, and though he might not necessarily be a huge point producer, can competently chip in on the power play.