|Torrey Mitchell is the most productive shorthanded specialist among NHL rookies.
Torrey Mitchell highlight video
It's no wonder Sharks coach Ron Wilson is all smiles when discussing his first-year prodigy.
"We always knew what he was capable of doing," Wilson told NHL.com. "We watched him closely in developmental camps and when he played at Vermont, and we noticed right away that this kid could skate. We felt he would be able to help us kill penalties with that speed he possessed. There's no question he's one of the fastest players on our team. It's tough breaking into the League when you're a center behind guys like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, but I also feel it's good for a young player to learn to play without the puck and Torrey had those skills coming in. We're just trying to enhance them a little more on this level."
Mitchell, a 23-year-old, fourth-round draft choice (126th overall) of San Jose in 2004, is wise beyond his years. Take, for instance, his philosophy on killing penalties.
"The thing is, sometimes the guys working a power play aren't thinking defense, so when you get that opportunity to get a step on a guy, there's no reason not to go for it," Mitchell said. "That's kind of been the case for me and 'Griersie' (linemate Mike Grier). Griersie always tells me that if I have a chance to go, to just go. When the other team is thinking dump and we're able to get possession of the puck, that's the time to break down the right or left wing to take advantage of a shorthanded opportunity."
Grier, considered among the top defensive forwards in the League, has enjoyed his time alongside Mitchell.
"I think he's been a good influence on the guys because he comes to work every day, works hard, brings good energy and always has a smile on his face," Grier said. "He has a lot of poise for someone in his first year and he's not afraid of anything. He'll go in first on all the pucks and finish his checks."
Grier and Mitchell are one-two in shorthanded points for San Jose this season. Grier has four and Mitchell three. In 79 games, Mitchell has scored 10 goals and 10 assists while averaging just over 14 minutes each game. He's also second on the team in takeaways (34), third in face-offs won (247) behind Thornton and Marleau and eighth in blocked shots (71). His feistiness in the corners has also led to 48 minutes in penalties, sixth-highest on the team.
"He reads the play well and is willing to work defensively, which is half the battle when playing a defensive role," Grier said. "He likes sticking his nose in there to block shots but he's also got some offensive potential to play on any of the top two lines. I feel he's got a lot of upside and could be one of the best checkers in the League."
Mitchell, a native of Greenfield Park, Quebec, feels fortunate to have Grier as a linemate in his inaugural season.
"Mike has been a big influence on me," Mitchell said. "He's so dependable on and off the ice. He's really a low-maintenance player who very rarely makes the wrong play, so he's great to play with. It's been easy to find chemistry with him, especially on the penalty kill."
Wilson feels having Grier as a linemate has helped nurture Mitchell's game.
"It helps to play with someone with experience and a similar background," said Wilson, pointing out that both Grier (Boston University) and Mitchell played collegiate hockey in the United States. "It's tough to make that transition from the college game to the pro game, particularly when only about 10 of your 35 college games are really tough ones. You never get a night off in the NHL and preparation is the key. Mike has that type influence on Torrey."
Thornton, who leads San Jose with 91 points (65 assists), has also been impressed with Mitchell's passion.
"When you have the speed that he possesses, you can step right in and have some success," said Thornton, the club's No. 1 center. "But he also has a good knowledge of the game and a great shot, so put that all together and you're in for a pretty special rookie season. He seems to be getting better as the season has gone on and is willing to learn."
"I'm not a big guy (5-11, 190), so my speed is a huge part of any success I might have," Mitchell admitted. "Whenever I get a chance, I know I have to go, especially in the offensive zone. If I'm needed to dig for loose pucks in the corner, I'll do that too.
"Right now, I'm playing a little bit more of a defensive role and I accept that, but it won't stop me from creating chances offensively either," he added. "If I can create chances on offense and remain a dependable defensive player, I feel I'm doing my job. I guess we'll soon find out how my career unfolds but right now, I'm just trying to make the best of it."
So far, Mitchell's best has certainly been good enough.
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.