BUFFALO – There was a time it felt like Casey Mittelstadt wouldn’t be around to experience a revival here. As the talented forward struggled to reach his potential and earn a spot in the lineup, the Sabres seemed to keep hitting rock bottom.
Another team might’ve jettisoned Mittelstadt, the eighth overall pick in 2017, years ago for a shiny new asset.
But the Sabres refused to give up on him and he rewarded them by playing a leading role as they fell one win shy of a playoff spot this season, their best campaign in 11 years.
“I love it here,” Mittelstadt said April 15 as the Sabres held end-of-season meetings in KeyBank Center. “… I feel a big sense of loyalty to this place and the guys in this room. Some of these guys, we’ve had some dark days and to see where we’re at now, I think we’re all really proud and it makes us all want to stay here and be a part of it. …
“Just to be with these teammates and in this group is something extremely special and something I’d like to do for a long time.”
Mittelstadt, 24, set career highs across the board, recording 15 goals, 44 assists and 59 points. After an injury-plagued 2021-22 season, he was the only Sabres player who played all 82 games.
“It was big after last year,” Mittelstadt, who played just 40 times a year ago, said of his health. “Maybe there was a little bit of a question mark about that coming in.”
He improved as the season progressed, shaking off a slow start and compiling 10 goals and 42 points in the final 50 contests.
Early on, he did most of his damage on the power play. He mustered just one goal and six points at even strength in the first 32 games. He finished the year, however, with 10 goals and 42 points at five-on-five.
“The first part of the season was like, ‘Just stay healthy, just stay healthy’ as a priority to try to get on track,” Sabres coach Don Granato said April 19. “And he had such a challenging and frustrating season, internally for him last year, that I think his whole focus and dedication, the first 30 games, was just on survival.”
Granato said after Mittelstadt got through that stretch, he “saw him get into it and not fear that he might get injured and start opening, playing more relaxed, and more confidence came from that.”
“Then it was just a gradual build from there,” he said. “I mean, we saw how effective and exciting he was down the stretch, but I think it was just a progression from that point.”
Mittelstadt said during some rough times early in the season, “Donny was never super hard on me.”
“More than anything he was supportive,” he said. “He knew I was struggling. … I was happy that I got to reward him back.”
The 6-foot-1, 195-pound Mittelstadt enjoyed his best stretch in the NHL late in the season. After playing left wing most of the year, he moved up and centered Jeff Skinner and Alex Tuch when Tage Thompson suffered a back injury in late March.
Mittelstadt ended the season on a tear, scoring five goals and 17 points in the final 11 games. The Sabres compiled a splendid 8-2-1 record in those games.
“I’ve kind of been waiting for that kind of moment, maybe, personally,” he said of pivoting of the No. 1 line. “… More than anything, it was nice to do it in games that mattered and kind of get momentum coming into next year.”
His emergence and versatility offers the Sabres options next year. Thompson and Dylan Cozens are entrenched as the top centers. If they keep Mittelstadt, a natural center, in the middle, they’d boast some of the NHL’s best depth.
“I’m comfortable in both,” he said of the positions. “… I like making plays in the middle of because I feel like I can see both sides of the ice well and I think maybe you’re a little more involved at center at times so if you make a few good plays in a row maybe your confidence gets going a little bit. I think that’s a benefit of center but at the same time, I think wing has its benefits, too. Maybe you’ve got to play a little less defense, cheat a little more, so that’s also fun. I really enjoyed doing both this year.”
The Rochester Americans, who open the best-of-five AHL North Division final tonight on the road against the Toronto Marlies, likely won’t utilize newcomer Olivier Nadeau, 20, in Game 1.
The Sabres assigned the forward prospect to the Amerks on Monday, shortly after his junior career with the Gatineau Olympiques ended.
Coach Seth Appert said he wants Nadeau, who’s expected to be a regular for the Amerks next season, to “absorb this experience but also fight for ice time.”
“You want to mentally prepare like you’re pushing to get in the lineup,” he said on a Zoom call Tuesday. “It might make my decisions hard.”
Nadeau a fourth-round pick in 2021, 97th overall, compiled 22 goals and 46 in 34 games this season.