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Rookie Mitchell elevated to top line of struggling Maple Leafs

The Canadian Press
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The Hockey News
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Rookie Mitchell elevated to top line of struggling Maple Leafs

The Canadian Press
By:

TORONTO - There was a time when John Mitchell was thrilled just to find himself on an NHL roster, let alone centring the Toronto Maple Leafs top line.

It was, oh, about two weeks ago.

His NHL career now five games old, Mitchell finds himself holding the No. 1 centre job that belonged to Mats Sundin last season. No pressure there, right?

"That's pretty neat but I don't want to put myself in the same shoes as Mats Sundin," Mitchell said after Monday's practice. "I think if I can do half of what he does I'll do relatively well.

"It's great to know that I've been given the opportunity to play that (role). I think it's just because of the hard work that I've done and the work ethic that I'm trying to put in. Ron likes that."

That would be Ron Wilson, the Maple Leafs coach who has made good on his training camp promise to give each player a clean slate this season.

Consider Mitchell's recent progression. He spent the past three years with the AHL Marlies and never once got a call-up from the big team, which routinely passed him over to give players like Kris Newbury, Ben Ondrus, Jeremy Williams and Robbie Earl a chance.

The 23-year-old eventually caught the eye of Maple Leafs management in the spring by scoring eight times in 19 playoff games for the Marlies. After signing a new contract over the summer, Mitchell knew he would be given an opportunity to play in the NHL if he worked hard.

With the help of Toronto's strength coach, he's done exactly that.

"It has to be everything," said Mitchell. "You can't just come to the rink and show up and work hard (during practice) and that's it. There's a lot of things off the ice that you have to do."

He enters Tuesday's home game against Anaheim with the same number of career NHL goals (0) as most Leaf fans - a mere 555 behind Sundin.

The stats don't tell the whole story, though. Mitchell played mostly fourth-line minutes on the wing over the opening four games and managed to show enough promise to get elevated to the top unit during a 4-1 loss in Pittsburgh on Saturday night.

Wilson figures that Mitchell's speed and willingness to forecheck might translate into more scoring chances for linemates Jason Blake and Nik Antropov.

"I want to give him an opportunity to show us what he can do in regular season games," Wilson said of Mitchell. "He's basically a centreman - I've had him playing out of position (as a winger). He's fought and competed really hard on faceoffs. He's a big, strong man who can play a low game when it comes down to that.

"I want to see what he can do."

The coach is hoping for more offence all around, telling his players during practice that he wants to see them shoot more and "score goals ugly."

It's a message that comes after the Maple Leafs managed just one goal over the weekend in losing to the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh. They're averaging 1.8 goals per game so far - tied for 29th overall heading into Monday night's games.

Beyond the top unit, more scoring is also needed from the second line of Mikhail Grabovski, Niklas Hagman and Nikolai Kulemin. Grabovski had five goals during the pre-season but has yet to get his first in the regular season.

"I know I need some goals," he said. "I work hard in practice and I think soon my line will score a goal. Maybe a lot of goals."

Mitchell's strength is his playmaking so there's no reason to expect him to score in bunches now that he's receiving more minutes.

His plan is to simply keep doing the things that earned him a roster spot with the Maple Leafs and eventually got him a place on the top line - working hard, forechecking and playing sound defensively. He figures that's the best way to overcome his lack of NHL experience.

"I've only played five games but that's no excuse for me to come out and make a handful of mistakes every game and use the excuse, 'Well, I've never played in the NHL, I've never played in this league,"' said Mitchell. "You can't do that whether you're 23 years old like me or 18 years old like Luke Schenn. You have to come in and play the game right every shift."

If he continues to do that, more success is sure to follow.

Just don't remind him how big the skates he's currently filling are.

"I don't want to be called the new Mats Sundin," said Mitchell. "Like I said, if I can do about half of what he does I think I'll be doing fine, especially for my first year. Maybe some day I can get to his plateau.

"We'll have to see."

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Rookie Mitchell elevated to top line of struggling Maple Leafs