After four years in the WHL, Regina Pats captain Garrett Mitchell believes it's time to take on a new challenge.
The Washington Capitals think so too.
The NHL club signed Mitchell to a three-year entry-level contract on Saturday, clearing the way for the 19-yearold Regina product to begin his professional career with Washington's top minor-league affiliate, the AHL's Hershey Bears.
Mitchell is slated to finish the season in Hershey for the second consecutive year, with an eye towards making a permanent transition to the pro ranks in the fall. That's good news for Mitchell and bad news for the Pats, who are facing the prospect of losing a player who has become their heart and soul.
"Obviously my goal is to play (pro)," said Mitchell, who leaves today for Hershey. "I've had a great career here, some great memories, met a lot of great people. I can't thank the Parkers and the Regina Pats' organization enough. What they've done for me is unbelievable.
"Obviously growing up in Regina, if next year I'm not here, I'll be keeping tabs on everything. I had season tickets my whole life so the team is pretty close to my heart. There's some mixed emotions but I'm really excited with the chance I've got. I hope I'm not coming back because it means I'm furthering my career and playing professional hockey."
Mitchell is eligible to return to the Pats next season, but it's rare for signed overage players to come back to the junior ranks.
"Most of our players have moved on and not come back and played as 20year-olds," explained Capitals director of amateur scouting Ross Mahoney, who selected Mitchell in the sixth round of the 2009 NHL entry draft. "I'm not saying Garrett (definitely) wouldn't be back as a 20-year-old but he has played a lot of junior hockey already. Garrett is probably ready to move on to that next step. If we didn't think he was, we wouldn't have signed him.
"I expect to see Garrett playing professionally next year."
Mahoney qualified that remark by noting there are many factors that could play into Mitchell's situation, the main ones being his performance and development. There's also the matter of finding room within a deep minorleague system, but Mahoney thinks there's a place for Mitchell -if not in Hershey, then with Washington's ECHL affiliate, the South Carolina Stingrays.
"It's up to Garrett to determine where he ends up, whether it's Hershey or South Carolina," said Mahoney, who lives in Regina. "It's up to him, how he plays and how he progresses. But he has made a very favourable impression so far."
Mitchell had a career season in 2010-11, notching 18 goals, 52 points and 140 penalty minutes in 70 games. Still, he can't help but feel a void after failing to make the playoffs for the third straight year.
"That was one of my big personal goals and a goal we had as a team," Mitchell said of qualifying for the postseason. "It's obviously disappointing not being able to do that but I was given an opportunity to keep on playing. I guess we'll have to wait and see what happens but I'm pumped about the opportunity."
The Capitals are eager to see what Mitchell can do. That said, they already have a pretty good idea.
"Garrett is not the type of player who's going to lead the league in scoring," added Mahoney. "He's the type of player who's going to give you an honest effort every single shift -block shots, play hurt, get in the odd dustup. He's an honest player and finishes every check. For him, the (path) to succeeding would be more of a checking role in the NHL and use that character and grit and determination that he has. There are all different roles for players on NHL teams and I think there's a role for Garrett eventually."
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