The Blackhawks' signing of top defenseman prospect Ian Mitchell earlier this week locked in a potential major piece of the team's future.
How large an impact Mitchell can make and how soon now serve as the biggest questions.
According to Kris Versteeg, Mitchell can play a big role along the Blackhawks' blue line as soon as next season. Versteeg, who announced his retirement from the NHL on Tuesday after 11 seasons - five with the Blackhawks - got a close-up look at Mitchell when the two were teammates on Team Canada during the 2019 Spengler Cup that wrapped up at the end of the year.
"He's a special player - he's unreal," Versteeg said of Mitchell, the Blackhawks' second-round pick (No. 57 overall) in the 2017 NHL Draft. "Cale Makar (of the Avalanche) is a player Mitchell reminds me a lot of in the way he skates, how mobile he is, he can really shoot it and he's smart. He can walk the blue line the way Makar can. You don't want to say he's exactly that yet - and Makar is also young - but the way they move and the little intangibles they share really reminds me a lot of him."
Versteeg, who suffered a broken foot during the Spengler Cup and played one final game in Europe following the tournament before calling it quits, was particularly impressed with Mitchell's poise. A moment in the championship game, won by Team Canada 4-0 over Ocelari Trinec, stood out.
Mitchell, who was the youngest player on Canada's roster at 20 years old, was on the ice with Versteeg during a 5-on-3 power play and the youngster took control of the situation.
"It was me, him and a couple of other guys and it was our first 5-on-3 of the tournament and the puck came to (Mitchell)," Versteeg said. "Usually, you'd think a young guy would just pass it off and he took the shot and labeled it top glove and that goal kind of got us going. He was a young guy in a big moment in a big game and he took the shot and took things into his own hands. That's kind of what you like to see as players."
After helping Canada capture the Spengler Cup, Mitchell returned to the University of Denver to continue playing for the Pioneers before their season ended prematurely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a junior, Mitchell served as captain and finished the regular season sixth among NCAA defensemen with 32 points (10G, 22A).
On Monday, the Calahoo, Alberta, native inked a three-year, entry-level contract with the Blackhawks. Due to the pause in the NHL season, the start date and AAV of Mitchell's contract have not yet been determined.
While every player takes a different path to the NHL - and due to the intricacies of the game young defensemen often take longer than forwards to reach the skill level needed to be effective at the highest level - Versteeg believes Mitchell can contribute sooner rather than later.
"He could play in the NHL next year, I think," Versteeg said. "Defense is a tricky position in the sense that (Mitchell) may be the Blackhawks' best offensive D-man but if they have a veteran in that spot or someone there who can contribute the same way and (Mitchell) can't contribute in a defensive role the way they want then he could go to the minors.
"But, to me, in watching him play well on the power play that wouldn't be his only attribute," Versteeg continued. "He can still penalty kill and he gets back for pucks and makes good first passes. I could see him anywhere in the D-lineup but it really comes down to minutes and where they see him in probably two or three years from now if not next year."