In the not-so-distant past, Buffalo Sabres prospect Casey Mittelstadt would’ve likely played two or three years of college hockey before turning pro. After leaving school, instead of being rushed to the NHL, he would’ve started an apprenticeship with the Rochester Americans.
But the NHL has changed dramatically in the last 10 years or so, morphing into a game dominated by young men. At the same time, the salary cap has whittled down teams’ depth.
Prized prospects who possess the potential to fill a need often get fast-tracked to the big leagues.
In Mittelstadt’s case, he signed his entry-level NHL contract late in 2017-18 following a freshman season in which he scored 11 goals and 30 points in 34 games with Minnesota. The ultra-talented center also starred for Team USA at the World Junior Championship in Buffalo, further raising expectations.
Mittelstadt spent a season and a half in Buffalo before the Sabres demoted him to Rochester for the first time Dec. 15.
“He is raw, and then he got rushed,” said TSN analyst Craig Button, who spent three years as the Calgary Flames’ general manager in the early 2000s. “I mean, there’s no way he should’ve left the University of Minnesota. … The Buffalo Sabres, if he wanted to leave there, just should’ve said, ‘No way, go back there.’
“(He scored) 11 goals. An 11-goal scorer in college hockey, you’re going to take him out of school?”
NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes, a former goalie, said: “Mittelstadt was so good at World Juniors, that’s what’s so tantalizing, right?”
Barely a year removed from playing high school hockey, Mittelstadt looked impressive during six late-season NHL appearances two years ago, recording five points. Then the Sabres traded Ryan O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues that offseason, creating a massive hole in their lineup.
Suddenly, Mittelstadt, the eighth overall pick in 2017, was penciled in as their new No. 2 center behind Jack Eichel.
While Mittelstadt, 21, showcased glimpses of his talents, he often struggled. Clearly, the neophyte wasn’t ready for the NHL.
After sitting out three of four games as a healthy scratch in December, the Sabres finally sent a slumping Mittelstadt to the Amerks.
In 31 NHL games this season, Mittelstadt compiled four goals and nine points. In his final 20 outings, he mustered one goal and two points while generating a minus-11 rating.
Mittelstadt couldn’t score, defend or stay in the lineup. The Sabres had to address his deficiencies and help him generate confidence.
“Somehow Casey’s become a failure?” Button said. “No, Casey, to this point in time, has been failed to a large extent.”
One scout who has watched Mittelstadt regularly throughout his career said the youngster has been mishandled, causing his development to suffer.
“(He) should have stayed in college longer, should not have been handed a job in the NHL as a second-line center,” the scout said.
On the surface, Mittelstadt’s three-month run with the Amerks might look disappointing. In 36 games, he compiled nine goals, 25 points and a wretched minus-15 rating.
Mittelstadt never forced his way back to the Sabres. Given his high draft status and that he had already played 112 NHL games when he arrived in Rochester, some might’ve expected him to tear up the AHL.
“You have to dominate where you’re at,” Weekes said.
Still, in Rochester, the affable Mittelstadt evolved and embraced new opportunities he wouldn’t have enjoyed in Buffalo.
“You want a guy to grab the ball, and he did,” Amerks coach Chris Taylor said.
Taylor forced Mittelstadt to become a versatile presence, utilizing him as a penalty killer and to take critical defensive-zone faceoffs.
“He just learned a lot of different things about himself … and his game, and I think that he continued to grow and he was starting to become a leader on our team,” Taylor said of Mittelstadt’s growth. “It wasn’t just he’s going out there and playing. He had an active role in what we were doing and leading.
“You could tell how competitive he was, and as games kept going and going he wanted to be out there every shift. He wasn’t afraid to make a mistake, and those are the things you want.”
Button saw growth in Mittelstadt’s game shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the AHL to suspend its season March 12. The league canceled the remainder of its schedule and the postseason Monday.
Early on, Button said Mittelstadt “was a player trying to do some things in the game and trying to feel comfortable.” When Button watched him again, he said Mittelstadt displayed more of a “natural feeling” in his game.
“What I saw prior to the shutdown was a player now that was finding his way again,” he said.
The 6-foot-1, 203-pound Mittelstadt will almost certainly return to the NHL in the near future. Weekes said the Minnesota native has an opportunity to play in the league a long time.
“There’s no better time to be Casey Mittelstadt, based on the style of play in the league … it’s tailor made to his game,” Weekes said.
But to thrive at hockey’s highest level, Weekes believes Mittelstadt must invest in himself and transform his body. When he saw Mittelstadt following an early-season game in October in New York, he noticed progress.
“I still think he’s a young guy who came in with a young frame and kind of a young approach to training at that time, not really dissimilar to (2019 first pick) Jack Hughes,” Weekes said. “They were too good to play against who they were playing against. But physically, their bodies hadn’t matured enough to play against men. But their skills were good enough to play against men.”
Sabres assistant GM/Amerks GM Randy Sexton said Monday that Taylor would be conducting exit interviews with his players later this week and next.
Sexton said the Sabres haven’t told any Amerks to stay ready in case the NHL season resumes. With no active farm team, the Sabres would need extra players around.