Defenseman Ian Mitchell’s NHL career is not yet a month old, but he doesn’t have the option to be tentative.
Duncan Keith would have none of it.
“It’s pretty special to be paired up with a guy like that, growing up watching him and trying to be like him,” Mitchell, 22, said about his Chicago Blackhawks defensive partner, who’s 15 years his senior.
“Now he’s yelling at me for not giving him the puck enough,” he laughed.
It might sound like tough love, but Keith and Mitchell gravitated to each other even before they were paired on the ice.
“Right when I got here, he took a liking to me, just being from western Canada also,” Mitchell said. Keith spent his teen years in Penticton, British Columbia, and Mitchell is from St. Albert, Alberta, a suburb of Edmonton.
Keith started chatting up Mitchell before camp started.
“He’s from Alberta and I’m living out in B.C. in the summer, so we had that in common, being out on the West Coast,” Keith said during camp. “We have that similarity, that bond in a sense.”
Because of COVID-19 protocols, Hawks veterans such as Keith have said they’re limited in how they can get to know new teammates — traditional ways such as dinners or exploring downtown are out , and camp was short — so they’ve found creative ways to break the ice with younger players.
Andrew Shaw, another longtime Hawk who has taken Mitchell under his wing, used a specific ice-breaker.
“Just the other day he left a little autograph in my stall for me and said I should hang onto this for a long time because it’ll be worth something,” Mitchell said.
“He makes it really fun to be around the rink. He’s been great to me, just as a younger guy, making me feel welcome.”
Shaw, who broke into the league with the Hawks in 2011-12, remembers what it was like for him.
“You just know as an older guy, coming into the league as a young guy, it’s hard to feel at home,” Shaw said. “You’re shy, you’re quiet, you don’t like stepping on anyone’s toes.
“I just like messing around with him, keep the mood light, make sure he knows it’s OK to be himself. We welcome him with open arms and have some fun while we’re here.”
Keith, 37, can appear no-nonsense on the surface, but Mitchell said he has a sharp wit too.
“He definitely has a dry humor,” Mitchell said. “You don’t know if he’s joking or not.
“I just try to give it back to him when he’s kidding around, and I think maybe he likes that a little bit. So that’s maybe where we’ve made a little of bit friendship, a little bit of a bond there. In Western Canada, we like to joke that we’re a little bit tougher and harder than some of the other guys too. That’s where that comes from.”
Mitchell played predominantly with Calvin de Haan in his first seven games, but in three of the last four games entering Thursday night’s matchup against the Carolina Hurricanes at the United Center, Mitchell mainly has been paired with Keith as the Hawks test how well that bond translates to the ice.
Off ice is one thing, but there’s no ambivalence about what Keith wants from Mitchell when they’re preparing for a shift together.
“He’s pretty predictable on the bench,” Mitchell said. “He tells me what he’s going to do, if the puck’s dumped in my corner, what he’s going to do.
“If it’s in his corner, where he’s going to try to place the puck so I can be ready for it. He likes to play north, too, same as me, where we’re not trying to mess around with (the puck) in our D-zone. We’re trying get it and move it up and get it to our forwards and quick as we can.”
Keith said during camp that he was impressed by Mitchell’s playmaking ability, skating and “hockey sense,” but, like most younger players, Mitchell needs to better understand positioning.
“That sort of thing comes with time and experience at this level,” Keith said.
Against the Hurricanes on Tuesday, Mitchell’s 11th game, he paired with Keith against Sebastian Aho’s line with Brock McGinn and Teuvo Teravainen and basically held them to a stalemate in puck possession and scoring chances.
Mitchell said he has learned that with creative forwards such as Aho.
“You can’t give them any space,” Mitchell said. “That’s something that I’ve been working on in with video with our D-coach, Sheldon Brookbank: Just try to close on guys in D-zone quicker, and stopping their speed has been a big thing he’s been preaching.
“I’ve come a long way since the Tampa game, that’s for sure.”
Mitchell was on the ice for four goals total in the first two games of the season against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“I still have a long way to go, but I think I’m improving at defending at this level,” he said.
The Hawks also have focused on having defensemen do more to help create scoring chances from the blue line. Mitchell took a total of five shots in the recent two-game series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
And as you might expect, Keith has been a “motivator” for Mitchell in that regard.
“I don’t think I’m gun-shy,” Mitchell said about taking shots. “Duncs is saying I need to give it to him more.
“But I think the coaches really stress try to shoot it off the first pass, coming from low to high, before the defense can get set in front of the net. So if we can deliver a puck there before they’re ready, that’s going to create chaos and havoc.”
“Whenever I get an opportunity I want to put it there. But you also don’t want to get it blocked, so there’s a give and take with that.”