A year ago, Mark Mitera was still adjusting to the speed of the pro game, still trying to find his way at the next level and still healing after undergoing ACL reconstruction during his senior year at the University of Michigan in 2008.
"It was probably halfway through last season that I was finally able to stop icing it after every game and warming it up before the games," the 6'4" defenseman says of his left knee. "It was pretty much the timeline the doctor said. With an ACL reconstruction, it takes about a year and a half for it to stop popping and clicking and for the body to heal soundly from the surgery. Now it feels like it's brand new. It's like it never happened."
The combination of his recuperating knee and almost a year-long layoff from hockey robbed Mitera of the speed and movement that defined his amateur game just as he was trying to break into the pros. And to make matters worse, the lack of an AHL affiliate saw the Ducks assign the rearguard to Bakersfield of the ECHL in order to guarantee him 25 minutes per game. Anaheim's first-round (and 19th overall) draft pick in 2006 was going to have to prove himself in order to earn another AHL assignment. But Mitera takes nothing for granted.
"You definitely have to prove yourself, every day," he insists. "I missed a whole season, so everything you did up until that point goes away. You'll be evaluated on where you are in the present, not what you did in freshman or sophomore year. You gotta be able to go out there every day and show that you can do it and live up to expectations."
Still, the experience of being the most skilled defenseman on the ice some nights in the ECHL was rather new to Mitera, who had played with some of the best of the Michigan Wolverines' recent blueline pedigree.
"I definitely played with a lot of great players throughout those four years," Mitera recalls. "[Jack] Johnson and [Matt] Hunwick, in particular, were great college defensemen and great NHL defensemen now. And it definitely helps in practice just to be able to play alongside those guys, pick up little things they do, and maybe try to add it to your game. Also, just to see how hard they work and how it pays off for them."
Their work ethic certainly appears to have rubbed off on Mitera, who fought his way back onto an AHL squad with Abbotsford at the end of last year. This season, Mitera is in a better place with the Syracuse Crunch, a stable place. And with the Crunch, he is once again learning from a more experienced defenseman as Head Coach Mark Holick has paired the second year pro with veteran Joe DiPenta.
"It's great playing with [DiPenta]," says Mitera. "He's won a cup in Anaheim, and he has the experience to show for it. He's a great, older guy. He just always has advice and little bits of information that I can use that he's relaying to me after a shift or in the locker room, which is great-- just little pointers here and there on things I can improve."
And there are things that Mitera knows he has to improve, such as his confidence with the puck. However, he also acknowledges the improvements he has made thus far in successfully translating parts of his dominant college game to the next level, while still focusing on the skills he must refine to be successful as a pro.
"The [AHL] game's a lot faster, but it also makes you play a lot smarter, where college is a little more run and gun. You get caught out of position sometimes [in college], and you're able to make up for it, but here, if you give guys easy 2-on-1's and things like that, guys are going to put the puck in the back of the net 90% of the time."
The challenge Mitera faces this year isn't all that different from last year. He must prove he can consistently play the game the Ducks demand: sound defense with the ability to eliminate his man from the puck and move it to the forwards quickly. However, his path to the NHL is much more straightforward this year. He is playing for one team that is committed to his development. And he is climbing one depth chart that can get him to an Anaheim uniform.
"I'm going to be a shutdown defenseman on [the Crunch] and a penalty kill guy," Mitera says. "[So I want to focus on] just being strong in the corners, winning all my battles, working hard-- pretty much taking care of our end first and go from there. I just want to work my way into a high D pairing on this team, and do whatever it takes for the team to win. Just go out there and be a solid shutdown defenseman again on the team's top line."
In any journey, the phrase 'back to square one' is an unfavorable assessment of one's progress. But for Mark Mitera, who has faced the adversity of a serious knee injury and a year bouncing around the minor leagues, getting back to where he should have been a year ago is a testament to his resiliency and his commitment to becoming an NHL hockey player.