BUFFALO – It took about five years, an eternity for an eighth overall pick, for Sabres center Casey Mittelstadt to reach this level.
On his way to becoming a top point producer, he endured a surprising demotion to the minors, a position switch, stints on the taxi squad and an injury-riddled season.
Mittelstadt, 24, needed time – a commodity not often given to top prospects thrust into the NHL as teenagers – to figure things out.
“It takes time to develop and you have to stand by your guys until they do,” Sabres coach Don Granato said following Tuesday’s practice in KeyBank Center.
Mittelstadt has rewarded the Sabres’ patience, morphing into one of their top offensive threats and, believe it or not, one of the NHL’s top point producers at even strength.
To wit: over a 20-game stretch since March 25, Mittelstadt’s 24 points, 23 even-strength points and 17 assists all lead the Sabres. His 12 primary assists also top the team. No one else has more than nine.
Entering Tuesday’s games, those 23 even-strength points were tied for first among all NHL skaters during that stretch and his 17 assists were tied for sixth.
Mittelstadt has experienced a remarkable transformation at even strength. A year ago, as he emerged from a trying season in which injuries limited him to 40 games, he recorded just two of his first 12 points at even strength.
His ability to play fearlessly and Granato’s belief have helped him realize much of his vast potential and showcase star qualities.
“Last year, I was probably trying to catch up on some borrowed time from my injury and trying to make up for some time I missed,” Mittelstadt said after the Sabres prepared for tonight’s road game against the Philadelphia Flyers. “I think when I look at my game, I think more than anything I’ve just really calmed down out there, lost a lot of the anxiety and I don’t really fear making mistakes anymore.
“I don’t think I’m going to make them. Donny’s been great for me as well. Even through those struggles he kept putting me out there and he believed in me that whole time. I think the loyalty of that goes a long way.”
Granato, having watched Mittelstadt up close since 2019, isn’t surprised by his recent exploits at five-on-five.
“I stood here every day and said he is putting the work in and he’s talented,” he said. “And the work that he put in two years ago and further is paying dividends now. It’s the NHL. It doesn’t happen overnight. … You need to acquire experience.
“Think of anybody that holds a position, the value of your experience is incredible. And Casey’s gained that experience over the last couple of years, and now it complements his talent that he’s always had. And it’s a lot of fun to watch.”
So far, Mittelstadt has scored exclusively at even strength this season, recording two goals and seven points in nine games, including five points in the last five contests.
In the second period of Sunday afternoon’s 4-0 win over the Colorado Avalanche, he showcased his smarts and talent in putting the Sabres up 2-0. After grabbing the puck from winger Jeff Skinner in the neutral zone, he sold a pass on a two-on-one before beating goalie Alexandar Georgiev high on the short side from the left circle.
“More times than not I’m probably passing,” said Mittelstadt, who compiled 15 goals and 59 points in 82 games last season, including 10 goals and 42 points at even strength. “So to be honest, I kind of had to convince myself I was passing as well. Sometimes that works and helps sell a fake maybe.”
— Buffalo Hockey Moments (@SabresPlays) October 29, 2023
What else has buoyed the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Mittelstadt? His ability to win puck battles.
He said growing up playing on frozen ponds and in small rinks in Minnesota is “pretty much all battling and making plays in tight areas.”
“I always thought (battling for pucks) was a stronger part of my game, and you come to the NHL, I’d never really play against guys 10 years older than me and they’re men,” he said. “… (It’s) something that I maybe struggled with for a little bit, and I think that’s part of the reason I lost my course.
“But … when you’re playing and you’re feeling pretty good, I think the battles become easier.”