John Mitchell wants everyone to remember he’s no Doug Gilmour.
Yet he realizes that centring the first line of the Maple Leafs with a No. 9 and 3 on your back will evoke certain fond memories in older fans, while scoring in consecutive games for the current team as Phil Kessel’s new best friend/linemate will make him quite popular.
So perhaps it was kismet when trainer Brian Papineau handed Mitchell a 39 jersey a couple of years ago at his first Leafs camp.
“It was just coincidence he gave me that number, but I thought: ‘I can do something with this’,” Mitchell was saying Monday at the MasterCard Centre. “I had an option of taking another number, but this was the reverse of 93.”
Gilmour had flipped his 39 as a Calgary Flame to 93 when he came to the Leafs in the 1991-92 season. Among the hundreds of thousands of fans he won over in six years as a Leaf was a kid in Oakville named John Mitchell.
“Doug coaches the Kingston Frontenacs now and awhile ago my mother brought my old 93 sweater from the (minor hockey) Hamilton Reps to one of their games,” Mitchell said. “He signed it for her and now it’s a real keepsake for me. We couldn’t afford a Leaf sweater as a kid and out junior numbers in Plymouth (OHL) only went to 40. It’s great that Doug’s around our team sometimes and that I can talk to him.”
Mitchell will get another chance to shine with Kessel and left winger Jason Blake tonight against the Minnesota Wild. The Leafs will seek to extend their streak of getting at least one point in the standings to eight games and sustain their long climb up from last place overall.
Coach Ron Wilson had expressed worry that Mitchell had not taken advantage of similar line promotions last season when he had 27 points in 76 games and was a minus-16.
But Mitchell impressed Wilson from September onward with a better physical approach to the game, leading to him replacing Matt Stajan less than one game into the latter’s stint with Kessel.
“If (Mitchell) starts to slide off, we have other people who can play there,” Wilson warned yesterday, but the line is clicking — and should get better as Kessel’s conditioning improves.
“Give me 10 games and I’ll get back to (100%),” promised Kessel, who had 36 goals as a Boston Bruin last year. “Our line has only been together three games. John’s worked really hard and he has a good shot.”
Eight goals in two games for the Leafs are also a by-product of better goaltending, supplied by Jonas Gustavsson. Coming through his first back-to-back games stopping 69 of 72 shots, he should be well-positioned to play tonight and in another set of consecutive starts this weekend against Chicago and Calgary.
“I don’t think too much about what will happen in future games,” said Gustavsson, who has relegated Vesa Toskala to the end of the bench for now. “I’m feeling good right now.”