might be the most talked about National Hockey League player to appear in 18 games over the past two seasons. Injuries sidelined the center for all of last year’s regular season and much of the first quarter of this year, but the impression he made during his rookie campaign is why his name constantly appears.
During that rookie campaign in 2007-08, Mitchell posted a solid 10 goals and 10 assists. But it’s his speed, aggressiveness and tenacity for the puck that has endeared him to everyone.
But, Mitchell scored those 20 points nearly two seasons ago. It’s an unfair expectation to think Mitchell would continue where he left off.
That point is very clear to Head Coach Todd McLellan.
“What’s fair? Incremental improvement,” McLellan said. “I believe he’s doing that, especially lately. Do we expect him to be at his peak ability right now? We don’t. The timing and execution will be rusty.”
McLellan started Mitchell off slowly on Nov. 27 against Edmonton by skating him in just 6:27 of ice time. Through Mitchell’s first seven games back, he did not cross the 10-minute barrier once.
“You can see him a lot more confident and competitive on the ice,” McLellan said. “Every night he takes on more and more and that’s by design.”
Mitchell went pointless in his first 13 games back and now has a goal and assist in his last five contests, while receiving unofficial credit for helping create a tally on Patrick Marleau
’s goal against St. Louis Wednesday with a timely screen.
“Especially when you’re a forward, you want to contribute offensively,” Mitchell said. “You take pride in crating energy, momentum and playing D, but scoring is a big part of any forward’s game. You can’t rely on the top three or six guys. Someone else has to step up. We can change the momentum of a game.”
Now Mitchell is on a stretch where he has played in excess of 10 minutes for five straight contests and his role has been diversified as he has jumped up to what amounts to third line minutes. Mitchell was an exceptional penalty killer for the Sharks in his first year and he’s sliding back into that role, as well as finding some power play time.
“I’m feeling more and more confident all over the ice, with the puck and in the corners,” Mitchell said. “The moment I knew (I was getting better) was when I made a play in a game I know I didn’t make the previous game. A little of this (and that) and I knew I still had it.”
“Where he has been sharp, and there’s no excuse with the time away, is knowing where he needs to be,” McLellan said. “He’s been around long enough that it should be very clear what we want.”
McLellan fully expects Mitchell to be in “peak” form later this season.
“We saw it pre-injury in training camp last year,” McLellan said. “I knew he was fast and tenacious. We all want that player now, but we have to give him a little time.”
It will come, but in the incremental stages McLellan mentioned.
“I’d like to be a little stronger on the puck,” Mitchell said. “I think I’m pretty close.”
Mitchell’s injury in last year’s training camp (broken leg) eliminated his sophomore NHL season. Because of that, he’s still looking to become an even better player.
“I thing there still a lot more room to improve my game and that has nothing to do with the injury,” Mitchell said.
As for how big a role Mitchell can take on this season, he will simply do what is asked.
“I want to play as many minutes to help the team, whether it’s six or seven or 15. I’ve got to do my job,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell, who listed “rehab” as his hobby, appreciates the ice time he’s getting and has very clear feelings about being on Injured Reserve.
“It’s not a place I want to be in my career ever again,” Mitchell said.
The Sharks assigned forward Jamie McGinn to their American Hockey League affiliate in Worcester on Thursday.
The Sharks will play hosts to Detroit on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and the game will be on CSN California, 98.5 KFOX and sjsharks.com.