BUFFALO – Don Granato first sensed it during the Sabres’ marathon offseason in 2020. Having been humbled by his demotion to the minors, Casey Mittelstadt grasped he had reached a critical juncture of his career.
When Granato, then an assistant coach, spoke to Mittelstadt, he could feel the center was evolving and maturing.
“He was putting all these pieces (together) of what people had presented to him,” Granato said following Wednesday’s practice.
Granato said Mittelstadt collected information from anyone he could – his agent and current and past coaches – and put it together “within the identity of his skill set.”
“Just a whole maturation process,” he said. “I mentioned many times he’s a competitor, so all of that is the formula for what we see now out of him.”
These days, on the ice or even talking to the media, Mittelstadt exudes confidence. He recently signed a three-year, $7.5 million contract. With Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen all gone, he has become one of the most recognizable faces on the rebuilding Sabres.
“If you would have told me two years ago that he would be at the level of maturation that he is now on the ice and off the ice, I might have said that might not happen,” Sabres winger Kyle Okposo said.
The genesis of Mittelstadt’s early-career turnaround can be traced to his surprising assignment to the Rochester Americans on Dec. 16, 2019.
At that point, he had morphed into a healthy scratch, scoring just one goal over a 22-game stretch while showcasing suspect defense.
“It was a hard time for me, hard start to the year,” said Mittelstadt, who jumped straight to the NHL in 2018 following his freshman season at Minnesota.
Less than two years into his career, Mittelstadt, the eighth overall pick in 2018, had reached a crossroads. If he embraced the assignment, he could earn a promotion back to Buffalo. If he pouted and refused to learn from it, he might be out of the team’s plans.
“It was a big wake-up call for him into what it takes to play in this league every night and be an impact player in this league every night,” Okposo said of Mittelstadt’s demotion.
On his 75-mile drive to Rochester almost two years ago, Mittelstadt called his father, Tom.
“He said, ‘Well, you can go down there and you can be cranky and complain the whole time or go down there and have a good attitude,’” Mittelstadt said.
After Mittelstadt hung up, he said ex-Amerks coach Chris Taylor called him and “said the same exact thing.”
“At that point it kind of hit me, right?” Mittelstadt said. “You’ve got to learn, you’ve got to grow up.”
Mittelstadt played 36 games with the Amerks, compiling nine goals, 25 points and a minus-15 rating before the COVID-19 pandemic ended the season. He was hardly a dominant player in the AHL.
Still, Mittelstadt has said he had a “blast” in the minors. He used the three-month stint as a catalyst to ignite his career.
“There’s a few different ways that you can take that when you’re a young player, and he took that in the best way possible, which was to take a deep dive into his game, into how he trained, into everything how he prepared,” Okposo said.
When Mittelstadt returned to the Sabres last season, he started on the taxi squad before receiving some spot duty as a third- or fourth-line winger.
Then the Sabres’ dearth of center depth created an opportunity. Eichel suffered a season-ending neck injury. They traded Eric Staal.
Granato, who had replaced Ralph Krueger, moved Mittelstadt back to center and up to a scoring line. He seized his opportunity, scoring nine goals and 17 points over the final 22 games.
“He was knocking on the door, he was ready to blow it open, and when he got his chance, he did,” Okposo said. “And you saw how he played at the end of last year. So (I’m) extremely happy for him and just proud of him for recognizing what he had to do and changing, because that’s not an easy thing to do as a young player.
“Sometimes you get emotional and you can say, ‘Oh, I’m getting screwed here.’ And he didn’t do that at all. He just put his head down and worked.”