John Mitchell was a Lost Boy.
“I moved to Hamilton when I was three and stayed until I was 10,” he was saying Thursday. “I could see the smokestacks out my bedroom window.”
“I forget the name of the arena, but the first time I ever skated was Peter Pan on Ice. I was one of the Lost Boys and I would spin around until someone would come and get me.”
He is not a Lost Boy anymore.
Mitchell is one of nine players to make his NHL debut in a Toronto uniform this season and while Luke Schenn
, Mikhail Grabovski
and to a lesser extent Nikolai Kulemin
have garnered more attention, Mitchell has cobbled together the kind of rookie season that will keep him employed.
He has scored nine times and added 16 assists while being bounced about the lineup. With Jason Blake’s centre Dominic Moore now in Buffalo, it has fallen to Mitchell to keep him scoring.
Hurt for six games, Mitchell has dressed for every contest in which he was eligible, even if he spent most of his nights in the early-season getting 10 minutes of ice time or less.
“I think John might have been wondering if I was being fair to him, but he needed the chance to watch and learn,” said Leafs’ head coach Ron Wilson.
Mitchell has averaged about 20 minutes of ice time over the last five games and has been dead even during that stretch.
The work ethic for which Hamilton is so famous is ingrained in Mitchell.
“(Assistant coach) Keith Acton works with him, they watch a lot of video together on defensive positioning and getting back to our end harder than he might have had to in the American League,” said Wilson. “I think he’s shown a lot of development, but his job for the rest of the season is to better the minus 15 he has so far. It’s been at -15 for the last few months so that’s good.”
Mitchell is obviously far more comfortable handling the puck than he was earlier in the campaign.
“If a guy is standing in front you in the minors you would go around him. When you get here you sort of stop your feet and look to pass the puck,” Mitchell said. “Now, I want the puck to be on my stick. I want to feed it to my linemates and feel confident they can pass it to me.”
Mitchell is an honest six-foot-two with good skating skills and a hard shot. Those elements, plus three years of apprenticeship with the Marlies, got him in the door with the Leafs.
Some talent evaluators believe Mitchell is capable of 20-plus goals. Applying the defensive principles he is learning would mean he could fit into the second, third and fourth line centre slots. He is fast enough and big enough to contribute even without offence.
“Who knows where things max out? It’s all a learning curve,” Mitchell said. “Through your career you have to learn something new, you have to improve on every little skill. You watch what other elite players do and try to steal their material. That’s going to make you an excellent player.”
Does Mitchell consider himself a bona-fide NHLer? The Lost Boy won’t be sure until next fall.
“I feel like I am an NHL player, but I want to be able to come into training camp, work hard and do the things I need to do to solidify my position.
“Then I will feel like an NHL player.”