Mark Mitera’s first two years at Michigan were relatively quiet with big-name defenseman Matt Hunwick and Jack Johnson on the roster.
Well, as quiet as can be for a first-round draft pick with clear-cut NHL talent.
Johnson and Hunwick are gone now, and this season, it’s the junior’s turn to lead a young Wolverine defensive corps.
“We talked about it last spring,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said, “how our defense would change without Hunwick and Johnson and all the defensemen (four total) we lost, and how challenging and how good it would be for Mark Mitera to now step up and really blossom into this challenge. And I think he’s done exactly that.”
One of the biggest adjustments for Mitera has been increased ice time. In the past two seasons, Johnson and Hunwick accumulated the most playing time, often spending nearly half the game on the ice.
Now, Mitera is a rock on defense, skating on the power play and penalty kill, as well as at even strength.
“This summer, I worked hard on my skating and conditioning,” Mitera said. “I knew I’d be playing 25-30 minutes a game without those guys here.”
Just looking at Mitera’s playing time undervalues his presence on the team. With four freshman defensemen, Mitera has also taken on a leadership role with the blueliners.
In each of Michigan’s four games, the Livonia native has been paired with a first-year player, most often Scooter Vaughan.
Mitera is a quiet guy who rarely gets in someone’s face to chastise him. Instead, Mitera leads best by example, both on and off the ice.
“He works the hardest in the weight room,” Vaughan said. “He’s one of the strongest guys on the ice at all times. He just plays aggressively.”
Mitera uses his strength to prevent opponents from scoring goals when he’s on the ice. Last season, despite being hampered by a wrist injury that limited his stick handling, Mitera used physical play to finish with a plus-23 rating.
His forceful style and 6-foot-3 frame make Mitera an imposing presence on the blue line, but his offensive numbers are unlikely to rival those of Johnson and Hunwick.
Mitera has 29 points as a Wolverine, including just two goals. While he’s not expected to be an offensive force, Mitera has the ability to shoot and pass the puck with the best. So far, it just hasn’t always shown up in the score sheet.
Those talents made Mitera a good fit on Michigan’s second power-play unit the past two seasons.
Saturday night, Mitera’s presence on the power play paid off in quantitative terms when, on the man-advantage, he scored Michigan’s first goal of the game.
The tally came off a fluttering wrist shot. Still, it got the job done.
“I guess I’ll take whatever goals I get,” Mitera said after the game. “They’re kind of few and far between, but I just got the puck and shot it to the net. I don’t think the goalie saw it.”
Even with the goal, Mitera still garners the most praise for his efforts in his own end. Much of the credit for Michigan’s 3-1-0 start goes to his ability to top opposing forwards.
As senior alternate captain Chad Kolarik said over the weekend, Mitera has been, “a man amongst boys” this season. And Kolarik wasn’t referring to Mitera’s freshman teammates.