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 and turned heads.
“Five-on-five, that pace, that’s the highest pace that I’ve played in the summer and he was really impressive there,” Sabres winger Kyle Okposo said Monday, shortly after Mittelstadt agreed to a three-year, entry-level contract. “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 look quite intriguing.
Mittelstadt, 19, isn’t just the Sabres’ top prospect; the eighth overall pick in 2017 is one of hockey’s most coveted youngsters.
Sabres general manager Jason Botterill said Mittelstadt will likely make his NHL debut as a center in Thursday’s home tilt against the Detroit Red Wings. He expected Mittelstadt to arrive in Buffalo on Monday night. Mittelstadt also has to sign his contract.
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.
The slick Mittelstadt offers the Sabres speed, an asset they sorely need.
“You’ll see another level of speed, for sure,” Sabres coach Phil Housley said prior to Monday’s 3-2 win against the Maple Leafs 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.”
Botterill said the Sabres kept in contact with Mittelstadt throughout the season. When Minnesota missed the NCAA Tournament – the Gophers looked like a shoo-in – Botterill said they gave him some time to reflect. They spoke to him last week and let him mull his future over the weekend.
On Sunday, Mittelstadt called Botterill and said he wanted to sign.
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.”
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.
Botterill said Mittelstadt’s “competitiveness in crucial situations” – the World Juniors being a prime example – helped convince him his prized prospect is ready.
“There could’ve been a lot of pressure on him (at World Juniors),” he said, “but he really excelled in that situation.”
Mittelstadt’s contract carries an average annual value of $925,000, according to TSN. He can’t play in the AHL this season. Botterill, however, hopes Mittelstadt will represent Team USA at the World Championship later this spring.
Playing this season will burn the first season of Mittelstadt’s contract.
Expect the Sabres to experiment a bit with Mittelstadt down the stretch.
“The beauty of Casey … is the versatility,” Botterill said. “Our plan is to start him up at center. I think that’s what the next five or six games are to do here, is to try and put him in a lot of different situations. I’m sure he’ll have some success and also have some failures, but what we’ve seen from Casey is that he learns from his mistakes fairly quickly.”
The Sabres have today off. Mittelstadt is expected to practice Wednesday.