Ask him who taught him most about being a pro, and he harkens back to a former Leaf who is still knocking players around in his 21st NHL season.
“I didn’t really talk to him much, but Gary Roberts was someone I watched very closely,” Mitchell said after practice at the Ricoh Coliseum.
“I went to a couple of summer camps and worked out at his gym and it was amazing. His determination, his work ethic, the things that he did, the food that he ate, it was unbelievable.”
An eight-goal scorer in 14 games this playoff, Mitchell grew up in the Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge area and studied everything Roberts did when he played for the Maple Leafs from 2000-2004.
“I grew up thinking I wanted to be like Gary Roberts,” Mitchell said. “He brought the total package, he hit everything, he went to the net and scored goals. He made plays, be blocked shots. He was a leader. He was everything a hockey player wants to be.”
So far, Mitchell is delivering a pretty fair imitation. A fourth-round choice in the 2003 draft, Mitchell enjoyed 28 and 25-goal seasons playing for OHL Plymouth. But when he arrived in Toronto in 2005, he quickly learned that in the pro game, he was all-but anonymous.
“It is like the Marines,” said Mitchell. “You come up. You’re a nobody and you have to prove yourself. Other players get more opportunity because they’re a first-round pick or something like that. I wasn’t. I had to earn my ice and earn everything I got.”
Mitchell played sparingly in his first year under Paul Maurice but then bounced up to 17 goals last year when Maurice graduated to the Leafs and Greg Gilbert took over. Mitchell’s 20 goals this season led the team and his bump in the playoff - he netted the series winner against Syracuse- has pushed his profile.
Mitchell defines himself as a puck-control possession player who wants to grind.
“I always want the puck to be on my stick. I’m not a puck hog, I want to have it down low and I want those d-men to work in order to get that puck from me.”
Gilbert said Mitchell’s progression is typical.
“His goal and dream is to get to the National Hockey League but unless he learned to play without the puck as well as he does with the puck, his opportunities were going to be slim and none.”
The scoring totals reveal steady progress. Gilbert agrees.
“He’s coming around. I’d like to see him shoot more. He goes on a string and then he gets away from it again and starts to become a playmaker. He’s got to understand that’s a weapon he has to bring every night.”
Expect to see plenty of Mitchell with linemates Jiri Tlusty and Ben Ondrus against Chicago beginning in Game 1, Friday at 8:30 p.m. The Marlies open the series at home next Tuesday.
“Benny gets in there and throws the body around,” Mitchell said. “Me and Jiri have a bit more stickhandling skill. Benny gets the pucks and he heads for the net and sets up shop there. We have great chemistry, speed, grit, power, size. We’ve got a great line.”