"He's strictly a defensive-oriented player. He's someone who will take care of his own zone, move the puck. He's just a good, solid defenseman. For Mark to be in the NHL, that's what people are going to say about him at that time."
-- David McNab
The natural fit of rookie defenseman Mark Mitera
in Bakersfield does not necessarily extend to airports.
The remote location of the Condors means lots of flights, and, much worse, lots of layovers like the one Mitera and his buddies faced last week en route to a two-game swing in Alaska that came with the added perk of five-hour layover in Phoenix. For a player as large as Mitera, that can seem like a week when it's spent wriggling in the dollhouse-sized seats of most airport lounge areas.
"For a 6-4 guy, they're not too comfortable," he said between flights last week. "I didn't bring anything on the trip (to pass the time). It's a short trip. We'll be back in a few weeks. I'm just laying back, getting through the day."
At least now when Mitera glances around in a waiting area or on the ice, he sees other young men just like him. Maybe not in stature, since he's the one who was a first-round pick by Anaheim in 2006. Or in size. Or potential.
But wherever Mitera turns these days there are Ducks, and several of them. Bakersfield has a bunch of Anaheim players, 11 or 12 in all. The same couldn't be said of Mitera's dressing room mates in San Antonio, which is one huge reason, fair or not, why the standout now finds himself in the ECHL.
"It's definitely a different year. In the end, they (Anaheim) have everyone's best interests in mind," he said.
Mitera, 22, was initially interested in starting on a higher rung, with the Rampage. But pro hockey gets complicated sometimes. The Ducks don't have an AHL affiliate this year, and San Antonio is affiliated with Phoenix.
The Rampage gladly gave Mitera a jersey, three square meals a day and a warm place to sleep, but justifiably showed deference to their prospects on the ice. Mitera cracked the lineup for just five games through the first month of the season.
"I guess going into it, you knew. They had a full team already," Mitera said. "It wasn't bad. You have to earn your ice time. I guess as a player, you'd like to play every game. That's not the agenda they had there."
Anaheim has a much different plan in mind for Mitera, naturally, and plucked its prospect away from the Rampage and slid him in with the Condors. David McNab, senior vice president of hockey operations for the Ducks, admitted that the ECHL level probably isn't an ideal match skill-wise for Mitera at this point.
"That's fair (to wonder). You'd rather have him play in the American League," McNab said. "But at least he's somewhere where he's playing 25 minutes a game. You have to make due with what it is. There're a lot of good players in the ECHL, too. There's no reason why he can't get better (there)."
At the very least, Mitera will be busy. And that's a comforting place to start.
Mitera's senior season at Michigan last year got off to a nightmare start. In the first period of his first game, he tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee. He came back to play just seven more games for the Wolverines.
"Last year was definitely a big season for me. It's tough to see the final outcome," he said. "With all injuries, you're taking a step back. You have to rebuild a little bit."
Mitera got the chance to do that with five games in Iowa, Anaheim's AHL affiliate last season, then jumped into advance training with the Ducks this preseason. He said playing in an exhibition game against Vancouver gave him jitters on the ice for the first time since, well, he can't remember when.
"It was a good experience to see what it's all about," he said. "It's kind of what I envisioned it to be, a lot of good players, a lot of good competition. There's definitely pressure for different players. You are going to make mistakes along the way. The quicker you brush them aside, the better you get to the point (where) you've seen enough, you get used to it."
Mitera had a solid offensive role at Michigan, contributing 50 assists in 131 contests. But that's just a garnish on his game in Anaheim's eyes. Mitera was a plus-61 combined in college and even in his short stay in Iowa last year managed to stand out with a plus-6.
"He's strictly a defensive-oriented player," McNab said. "He's someone who will take care of his own zone, move the puck. He's just a good, solid defenseman. For Mark to be in the NHL, that's what people are going to say about him at that time."
The Ducks expect Mitera to give them reason for chatter almost immediately. Bakersfield is just about three hours from Anaheim, so the parent team can focus its microscope on him with ease. Most of all, it wants to see a player who looks like he should be competing at a higher level.
"There're no excuses. We're not saying to a player, 'You can take the year off, or you can struggle now,'" McNab said. "He's got to be an impact player day-in and day-out if he's going to put himself farther up the line (in the system)."
Mitera invites the scrutiny and welcomes the chance to prove he's a self-starter no matter which league he's in.
"You have to give it your all," he said. "You never have to ask a player to get (mentally) ready for a game. You should be ready to go."