TORONTO – Even among the established NHL talent on the ice during those morning skates last summer in Minnesota, Buffalo Sabres prospect Casey Mittelstadt’s skills stood out, even turned heads.
“We skated Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at different rinks, five-on-five,” Sabres winger Kyle Okposo said this afternoon, shortly after the center signed a three-year, entry-level contract. “That pace, that’s the highest pace that I’ve played in the summer and he was really impressive there. I had guys on the bench saying how special of a player he was and how special his mind was for the game.”
Suddenly, the final two weeks of a miserable season are intriguing.
Mittelstadt, 19, isn’t just the Sabres’ top prospect; the eighth overall pick in 2017 is one of hockey’s most coveted youngsters.
The 6-foot-1, 201-pound Mittelstadt just completed a strong freshman season at the University of Minnesota, compiling 11 goals and 30 points in 34 games for the Golden Gophers.
Sabres coach Phil Housley said he wants to play Mittelstadt as soon as possible. Housley expects him to arrive in Buffalo tonight or Tuesday. After tonight’s tilt against the Maple Leafs, the Sabres host the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday.
The slick Mittelstadt offers the Sabres speed, an asset they sorely need.
“You’ll see another level of speed, for sure,” Housley said inside the Air Canada Centre. “He plays the game at a high speed level with great hockey sense and a great IQ for the game. (It’s) a good adjustment for him to get up to speed, you’re playing in a man’s league and you’re playing against stronger and bigger players. Those are things that he’s going to have to make an adjustment to.
“I think by using his speed he’ll be able to create separation and get away from checks.”
Update: Sabres general manager Jason Botterill said late this afternoon that while nothing is official, the plan is for Mittelstadt to debut Thursday at center.
Botterill the Sabres talked to Mittelstadt throughout the season and again recently after Minnesota failed to quality for the NCAA Tournament.
“We wanted to talk to him a little bit where his head was at and what he wanted to do moving forward with his career,” he said. “(We) spoke with him a few times throughout the week and then gave him a couple days to figure things out over the weekend.”
Over the weekend, Botterill said Mittelstadt called and said he’d like to move forward.
Mittelstadt can’t play in the AHL this season. Botterill said he hopes Mittelstadt can play with Team USA at the World Championship later in the spring.
Mittelstadt’s ability to quickly create separation and showcase his talents at a high speed impresses Housley.
“He does things at a high speed level, whether it’s shooting, he gets his shot off quick, his first three or four strides out of the gate are really good,” Housley said. “That’s how he creates his separation and he’s got great vision to make plays. It’ll be interesting when he gets here to see him and talk to him and see how he’s going to be part of our team.”
Mittelstadt will be joining a last-place team he’s expected to help rescue. The decision to leave school so early was possibly difficult, something Okposo understands well.
Ten years ago, Okposo, the seventh overall pick in 2006, left Minnesota halfway through his sophomore season. While Okposo went to the AHL first, the New York Islanders called him up late in the season.
“Pretty nerve-racking, having done it myself,” Okposo said of leaving school and joining pro hockey. “You don’t really know what to expect. Pro hockey’s a lot different. You dream your whole life about playing in the NHL and you can taste it. Those nerves are definitely running.
“Just joining a team, not really knowing anybody, it’s a tough thing. But guys learn and they adjust and at the end of the day, it’s just hockey. That’s the one thing I’ll remind him.”
What does leaving school so quickly do to your life?
“It’s a whirlwind,” Okposo said. “You’re living this dream and you have this life and you’re in college and you start to get comfortable there. He was there for one year. Then all of a sudden, you turn pro and you’ve got to get used to a whole new thing. …
“I don’t think he’s been away form home, really. Then you go to Buffalo, New York, new state, new city. It’s definitely a time in flux in your life.”
Of course, Okposo felt pressure when he joined the Islanders as a teenager. He said “good, older guys” kept him grounded.
“The team has to try and shield you from that as best as you can,” he said. “He’s going to get some hype. He’s a good player, he deserves it. I’m sure he’s got a good head on his shoulders and at the end of the day, it’s just hockey. I know it’s the National Hockey League and the best league in the world, but it’s still hockey.”
Mittelstadt also starred for Team USA at the World Junior Championship Buffalo hosted in December and early January, earning tournament MVP honors.
Update: Playing for the Sabres will burn the first season of Mittelstadt’s contract, according to TSN’s Bob McKenzie. The deal has an average annual value of $925,000.
In other news, Sabres goalie Linus Ullmark will start tonight. Chad Johnson, who missed two games after a puck hit him in the head last week, will back him up.
Update: Ullmark isn’t on the ice for warm-ups. Johnson will start. Goalie Robin Lehner will back him up.
Housley will make two changes on defense, inserting Nathan Beaulieu and Justin Falk for Victor Antipin and Josh Gorges.
Housley switched up his top defense pairs this morning, putting rookie Brendan Guhle beside Rasmus Ristolainen and moving Marco Scandella beside Casey Nelson.
“Just keep playing the same way,” Guhle said.
Up front, Okposo moved to right wing beside center Ryan O’Reilly and Scott Wilson. Winger Sam Reinhart, meanwhile, skated at right with center Johan Larsson and Jordan Nolan.