Full Circle: The Return of Johnny ‘Malkin’ Mitchell to Toronto?

Ideally, when the Leafs go to fill their fourth line center role for next season, they do so by simply bringing back Brian Boyle and solidifying that spot for the next 2-3 years. Boyle was a fantastic deadline acquisition that provided a massive upgrade in that role over Ben Smith, and no doubt was part of the reason Toronto was able to more-or-less roll four lines confidently against the Capitals in the playoffs. But free agency is always a tricky thing, and with the Leafs already tying up a good chunk of coin in Matt Martin to play on that line, they might have a hard time bringing back Boyle if his ask is up in the 3.0-million AAV area. And it very well could be.

Toronto might have to look elsewhere for help, because there’s no possible way they can bring back Ben Smith and watch him get buried in that role again. There will likely be plenty of cheap options out there who can step in and provide that upgrade, and one of them is John Mitchell. Yes, that John Mitchell.

Mitchell is coming off a deal with the Avalanche that was paying him 1.8-million annually on the cap, and at 32 years old, could still be a decent pickup on a one year contract, especially considering some rough luck on a garbage team had his boxcar numbers taking a big cut this past season. Toronto could benefit from that by getting him on a bargain to chip in 10-12 minutes per night. Brian Boyle he is not, because few who play that role are. But Mitchell would likely be a serviceable player in that spot – far better than Smith at least.

The Avalanche were almost impressively awful in every area this past season, but Mitchell wasn’t in the run of play. His counting stats were trash – 7 points in 65 games – but he shot 5.3% on the season compared to his career 10.2%. His PDO (on-ice save% + shooting%) was 97.1, whereas Corsica.Hockey had his Expected PDO at 99.2.  I’d bet on those numbers coming back up next season, especially so on a team with more talent and far better coaching. This past season was Mitchell’s first where he wasn’t at least on pace for 20+ points over 82 games, so he has shown he can chip in at a good rate in the past.

But there are tons of depth players available every summer, why bring up Mitchell now? What got me thinking about him as an option in free agency is Scott Cullen’s mock-up Leafs roster for next season. He slotted Mitchell in as the fourth line center, and since his return to an on-the-rise Leafs team would be a nice little story, I figured we’d dig a little to see what he’s all about.

Mitchell was positive play-driver relative to his teammates this season. In seasons past that wasn’t always the case, but his minutes took a dip in 2016-17, so that sort of tells me he was given too much on a terrible team before now. This past year he was given the right amount of minutes (albeit still on a godawful club). He’s a fourth liner, but a legitimate NHL player.

In 12-minutes a night, Mitchell was one of only a few Avs not to get absolutely caved in at even-strength.

5v5 Relative score-adjusted Corsi
Brian Boyle +1.75%
John Mitchell +0.73%
Ben Smith -11.11%

Numbers via Corsica.Hockey

Mitchell’s CorsiAgainst per 60 minutes was second-lowest on the Avs at evens, and the same goes for his Goals Against rate.

One knock on Mitchell could be that he wasn’t a primary penalty-killer for the Avalanche, something Smith and Boyle do a lot more of. However, his short-handed numbers aren’t bad, and have have shown to be as strong as Smith’s or Boyle’s in his limited time there. He may have even been able to increase his role and set himself apart if not for some awful goaltending on his end.

Brian Boyle 1.0 134.1 9.63 0.866
John Mitchell 0.6 93.12 9.01 0.793
Ben Smith 2.2 130.4 9.81 0.857

Numbers via Stats.HockeyAnalysis

On the overall, even though he’s had some nice offensive seasons in the past, I don’t believe Mitchell is nearly as good as Boyle. But on the Smith-to-Boyle scale, he’s at least over the centre line. For a million dollars annually (or maybe even a PTO flyer), that might be worth a look if Boyle prices Toronto out a month from now.