Casey Mittelstadt (37) skates away from Zemgus Girgensons during training camp. ©2023, Micheline Veluvolu

After starring role as top center, Sabres’ Casey Mittelstadt back in middle

BUFFALO – Through all the adversity he endured early in his career – a demotion, position switch, injuries and more – Sabres center Casey Mittelstadt stayed ready, so when a special opportunity materialized late last season, he seized it.

“That’s easily said, but not often done,” Sabres coach Don Granato said earlier this week in KeyBank Center. “… To stay prepared for your opportunity in life – in this case, hockey – is a trait of really, really successful people.”

Mittelstadt, 24, had found a groove before top center Tage Thompson suffered a hip injury in March. But when he moved over from left wing to replace Thompson between Jeff Skinner and Alex Tuch, he took off.

In the final 11 games, as the Sabres fought furiously but fell one win short of grabbing a playoff spot, Mittelstadt ranked among the NHL’s hottest scorers, registering five goals and 17 points.

Mittelstadt’s exploits put him in elite company. Only five players – Mikko Rantanen, David Pastrnak, Nathan MacKinnon, Leon Draisaitl and Jason Robertson – recorded more points during that stretch.

“He was excellent,” Granato said of Mittelstadt. “And I don’t mean excellent here. In perspective the entire league in production and performance, he was excellent by all the metrics.”

Thompson will likely assume his regular spot with Skinner and Tuch when the season opens next week. Dylan Cozens seems to be entrenched as the No. 2 center.

Where does that leave Mittelstadt? Tyson Jost and Peyton Krebs are the Sabres’ other returning centers.

A natural center, Mittelstadt has spent much of the past three seasons playing the wing. Granato said early in training camp he would “love to keep him at center more than not.”

Mittelstadt has been skating at center throughout the preseason, a time coaches use to experiment and evaluate. In Wednesday’s road game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, a game Thompson sat out, he pivoted Tuch and Jordan Greenway.

Mittelstadt said the different styles he and Tuch possess complement each other.

“He’s ripping around out there a million miles an hour, and I’m usually slowing the play down,” he said. “So I think it works well, especially when I get the puck, I kind of slow down and try to hold on to it and he’s taking off. I think we play the game at different speeds. But I think at the same time, that meshes pretty well.”

The Sabres have plenty of talented wingers in camp, so utilizing Mittelstadt at center has made sense.

“We have some skill that could spread through depth, and we need centermen to fill those spots,” Granato said.

While Granato might envision Mittelstadt as a center this season, he knows he’ll need to move guys around.

“We need these guys to play everywhere,” he said. “… It’s all a need when you go 82 games and have injuries and you go down to a 23-man roster. Guys need to shift from center to wing. So it’s not as much coaching decisions throughout the course of the year as it is decision based on what you have left and what the situation is.”

Mittelstadt, the eighth overall pick in 2017, has often said he doesn’t care where he plays.

“There’s benefits to both,” said Mittelstadt, who set career highs last season by recording 15 goals and 59 points in 82 games. “Playing wing, I feel like maybe you get some more odd-man rushes, some more kind of half breakaways or breakaways. … Center is a little different. I think you’re playing a little more defensive, a lot more touches.”

The Sabres, who have 30 players left in camp, must finalize their 23-man regular-season roster by 5 p.m. Monday.

Right now, goalies Eric Comrie, Devon Levi and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who played Wednesday, are all on the roster.

Would the Sabres, who carried three goalies much of last year, really start the season with an extra one again? It’s possible. General manager Kevyn Adams views it as a position of strength. He has exercised patience in the past and shown he won’t make a move for the sake of it.

If they waived Comrie or Luukkonen, they would be gifting a team a goalie.

Granato said he’s comfortable beginning the campaign with an extra netminder.

“If … we turn in the opening day lineup and it has those three players specifically on it, I have no issue and I don’t see it as any negative from a challenging standpoint of how you keep three happy and content,” he said. “… I’m very comfortable with how all three have played to this point in camp and they all work together and work for this team.”

The three goalies have combined to play just 100 NHL games, meaning they’re hungry for more.

“They’re each and every day working to get better and they know they can get better,” Granato said. “So we don’t have a guy that’s at 300, 400 games in the NHL. It’s a different scenario. That’s a … big factor.”

Sabres defenseman Erik Johnson, 35, was scheduled to make his preseason debut Wednesday but felt some nagging lower-body aggravation, Granato said. Henri Jokiharju replaced him.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *