Mitchell proving he belongs
By Ryan Stanzel
Whether it was while sitting out as a healthy scratch for 10 of the Aeros first 12 games this season, or during two stints for a combined 16 games with ECHL Louisiana, Kevin Mitchell had plenty of time to daydream about being an AHL regular.
Several months later, the Aeros defensemans dreams have come true, and hes not just an AHL regular. Mitchell has been Houstons second most productive blueliner over the past two months, racking up 15 points (3+12=15) over the past 23 games.
To Mitchell, October and November seem like years ago.
At the beginning of the season it was tough not knowing what would happen, said Mitchell, noting a plethora of young Aeros defensemen under contract with the Minnesota Wild while he was signed to an AHL deal. While you can never be comfortable anywhere, I know now that if Im playing well Ill be in the lineup and will get to play some playoff games in this league.
Mitchell, 23, is a New Yorker through and through. He was born in the Bronx and resides in Floral Park. The third-year pro spent two thirds of last season in the AHL with Bridgeport and Cleveland, and the rest in Louisiana.
I dont think Kevin came to camp in good condition physically, said Aeros coach Todd McLellan. He wasnt in good shape.
When Mitchell, still not at the top of his game physically, had played only two AHL games through early November, he was reassigned to the IceGators to see more ice time and work on conditioning. The results were spectacular, as Mitchell notched six points in a three-game weekend series with Louisiana. He came back to the Aeros with two assists in his first three games back.
As the season wore on he went to Louisiana to work on conditioning, and he came back in much better shape and realized he needed to make good on his opportunities, said McLellan. He certainly has.
The opportunities have become more plentiful since January 17, when he was recalled again after spending six weeks in Louisiana.
With several call-ups and injuries, Mitchell has had the chance to see plenty of ice time, and hes capitalized. Mitchells 15 points in the last 23 games are second to Travis Roche among Aeros defensemen over that span. He had a goal and five assists during a career-best five-game point streak in late January. His five-game assist streak was a team season-high.
Hes motivated, said McLellan. He wants to prove to his teammates, himself and to the hockey world that he can compete at this level on a nightly basis and even graduate on to that next level.
It took Mitchell, who has a rifle of a shot on the power play, some time to get accustomed to his new role power play specialist.
When you first get here you dont want to seem selfish, said Mitchell. I was more inclined to try to get the puck to my teammates. But sometimes you have to be a little selfish.
Hed be the first to tell you that we remind him every day that you have to shoot in order to score, said McLellan. Hes starting to feel more comfortable taking the shot. Hes been quite good on the power play lately taking the shot.
Mitchell has 12 of his 18 points on the power play, including three goals and countless assists that came as a result of his laser beam from the point.
Mitchell has really injected some energy into a power play that was ranked in the bottom three of the AHL for the first half of the season. The unit is up to 20th at 12.9 percent to start the week. Since Mitchell came back from Louisiana in early January, the Aeros power play is hitting on 14.7 percent of its chances.
Perhaps the biggest reason Mitchell has had the opportunity to enjoy the success he has, however, is his improved defensive play. Mitchell turned pro in 2001 as a highly-touted offensive defenseman out of the Ontario Hockey League. He has piled up nearly a point per game in parts of three seasons with Louisiana. However, to play in the AHL, particularly in the Minnesota Wild system, everyone has to think defense first.
Mitch is learning you cant always look for the home run, said McLellan. You have to be consistent. It all adds up. If youre scoring one goal a night but giving up two while youre out there, youre not going to win.
Against certain teams like Milwaukee or Chicago its harder defensively, said Mitchell, who is often paired with a stay-at-home defenseman. You have to keep it simple. I usually dont play against their top line so that makes it easier.
Mitchell was a fan favorite in Louisiana not only for his scoring but also for his hip checks, something hes continued in Houston.
The hip check is really a dinosaur in hockey, said McLellan. Hes always good for one or two a night. Its very much a surprise to those opponents who are not expecting it.
At 5-foot-11, many have told Mitchell over the course of his career that he was too small. His coach disagrees.
I dont see him being physically small, he said. Hes 200 pounds and is able to throw his weight around. Would you like him to be 6-foot-3 as opposed to 5-foot-11? Yes, but it really doesnt have an effect on him right now at this level.
Since coming back from Louisiana in January, McLellan has noted another change as well Mitchells work ethic. Hes often seen in the weight room on off days.
I believe hes buying into it, said McLellan, a smile coming to his face after recalling the out-of-shape Mitchell that attended camp in Minnesota and Houston. He has figured out those little things that coaches notice
coming in to work out on the day off.
It may have been an early January conversation with IceGators head coach Dave Farrish that helped turn that work ethic around.
I think he was disappointed about being sent down, said Farrish. We had a conversation, and I basically told him he had to be prepared because you never know when the next opportunity will come. If it comes and youre not prepared, it may never come again, so be at your best at all times. Mitch had a great practice that whole week. He was focused and fun to be around again. He was having a good time, and I dont think he was before. He ended up just changing his attitude completely. He was recalled again the next week and stepped right in.
Mitchell is thankful for his chance, and he knows hes in a spot that many defensemen in the ECHL would like to be in.
There are guys on every ECHL team that can contribute in this league, he said. There are so many contracted guys in the AHL that once someone gets back from recall or injury, the ECHL player is the first one cut. Youve just got to be patient and take advantage of your opportunities.
Farrish said he can use Mitchells success as a motivational tool for younger players attempting to make the same move.
We knew he was a great talent, said Farrish. Mitch had to get used to the professional game on the ice and conditioning off the ice. Hes made great strides in that area. Last year a really good second step. He got a lot of ice time in the AHL, and it was really beneficial. This year he came in on a two-way contract and found a way to get himself on the Houston roster. Hes been a pretty steady full time AHL player. Its rewarding to see as a coach the young kids come in, make the progression, then move up and are able to contribute.
It hasnt been a completely joyous New Year for the born and bred New Yorker, who watched childhood hero Brian Leetch go from the beloved Rangers to the Toronto Maple Leafs prior to the trading deadline. Mitchell wore No. 2 in Louisiana because of Leetch, and he sports No. 20 with the Aeros.
The organization is in shambles, said Mitchell. Hell always be a New Yorker and a Ranger at heart. I dont really want to see a Canadian team win, but I hope he has a good run.
If theres one more thing the Aeros can look forward to, its that lightning might strike twice. The IceGators have another promising rookie from Oshawa and head coach George Burnett centerman Jamie Johnson.
Johnsons a bit small (5-foot-11, 190 pounds), but the playmaker has put up 50 points (11+39=50) in 63 games, and 17 of his points have come on the power play. Johnson, who has already put up the fourth-best rookie season in IceGators history, attended camp with both Minnesota and Houston.
Its nice to see guys move up to Minnesota, said Mitchell, who has three Aeros teammates currently in St. Paul. Hopefully well be able to get some guys here from Louisiana and play some games. Ten games in this league at the end of the season, like I had my rookie year...It gives you a lot of confidence and it makes you feel like you can play in this league.