CHICAGO – As the first round of the NHL Draft approached, no one seemed to have any idea how the early portion would play out and where youngsters like new Buffalo Sabres prospect Casey Mittelstadt could be picked.
Sure, it was expected centers Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick would go first and second overall Friday, and they did. But after that, several guys like Mittelstadt were pegged to go anywhere from third or fourth or even past the 10th selection.
As the picks went by, the 18-year-old Mittelstadt, a high-scoring center from Minnesota, sat nervously in the United Center stands. The Sabres, meanwhile, discussed moving up, general manager Jason Botterill said.
“People were saying how wide open this draft would be, and I think it definitely played out to what people were saying,” said a smiling Mittelstadt in his blue No. 17 Sabres jersey. “Buffalo’s a great place to play.
Was Botterill surprised Mittelstadt lasted so long?
“Isn’t that the cliche? You got to say, ‘No, you can’t believe they were there,’” he said. “There was a group of players we felt very comfortable selecting.”
Going to Buffalo, a place Mittelstadt knows well from the NHL Scouting Combine, “makes it even better,” he said.
“It’s been a lot of buildup,” he said. “It’s been a stressful day, to be honest with you. … It’s a big relief to be picked. Me and my family are super excited.”
The 6-foot-1, 201-pound Mittelstadt took an unusual path to becoming a top NHL pick. He played for two teams last season, showcasing his talents with Eden Prairie High School and the junior United States Hockey League’s Green Bay Gamblers.
“I’m a two-way center with some offensive upside,” he said.
Botterill added: “Great skill level, plays with pace. I just think he’ll fit well with players such as (Jack) Eichel, (Ryan) O’Reilly, (Sam) Reinhart over the next couple years.”
Mittelstadt started last season with Green Bay, then left when his high school campaign started because he wanted to win a Minnesota state championship. After falling short of his goal, he returned to the Gamblers.
“It’s someone who’s strong with their own convictions, and, yeah, he made a bold choice to go back (to high school),” Botterill said.
Mittelstadt compiled 13 goals and 30 points in 27 USHL games last season and 21 goals and 64 points in 25 high school contests. He is committed to the University of Minnesota.
“That will still be the plan,” he said of playing NCAA hockey. “Obviously, I should go to Minnesota next year and try to get bigger and stronger in the weight room and we’ll see from there.”
Clearly, Mittelstadt is excited to join to the Sabres and play for new coach Phil Housley, a Hall of Fame, who was coaching Minnesota high school hockey just four years ago.
“That’s awesome,” he said of Housley’s high school career. “I just met him for the first time five minutes ago. Being able to meet him was obviously an honor. He’s done pretty much everything you can in hockey. Being from Minny is kind of the cherry on top.”
Being American, Mittelstadt said he likes to watch Eichel. While Mittelstadt talked to the Sabres at the combine, he said he “really had no idea” they were interested.
“I … loved the city,” said Mittelstadt, who received some attention at the combine because he couldn’t do a pull up.
Now that the draft is over, Mittelstadt can settle down a bit, something he’s looking forward to.
“These last few months have been a lot of fun,” he said. “But at the same time, I’m ready to get back and move into school, get in the weight room and start focusing on hockey a little more. It’s been stressful but it’s been great.”
Mittelstadt is the high-drafted Minnesotan since the Montreal Canadiens grabbed Ryan McDonagh 12th in 2007.
Botterill, meanwhile, has five more picks today. The Sabres need defensemen for their organization, but Botterill still wants to take the best player available.
“If there’s a fit, we’re certainly going to make a selection for a defenseman or a goaltender,” he said. “But we’re certainly not going to force it.”
While the NHL was busy with trades Friday, the Sabres didn’t force one. Botterill joked his phone has “sort of been glued to my ear for six weeks.” Deals, he said, don’t have to happen at the draft.
“These things happen at any time,” he said. “I think talks now, you never know when it can transpire, over the next couple days or next week.”