Casey Mittelstadt knows he must evolve. ©2018, Hickling Images

Sabres notes: Casey Mittelstadt focusing on defensive side

BUFFALO – Sabres center Casey Mittelstadt has produced goals and points at every level of hockey. So right now, 10 games into his NHL career, the rookie said he isn’t worried about his offense.

“I’m sure the offense will come, it usually does,” Mittelstadt said prior to Thursday’s 6-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche inside KeyBank Center. “I’m pretty good with that.”

Mittelstadt, 19, has been an offensive stud wherever he plays. Last season, he compiled 11 goals and 30 points in 34 games with the University of Minnesota and another four goals and 11 points in seven outings for Team USA at the World Junior Championship.

Even in his first six NHL appearances, Mittelstadt compiled one goal and five points.

But Mittelstadt, the eighth overall pick in 2017, understands talent alone won’t buoy him at the NHL level. He must evolve.

“Sometimes the best defense is definitely the best offense,” Mittelstadt said. “Yeah, it’s been stressed.”

That’s why Mittelstadt said he has focused on developing defensively and improving in the faceoff dot, where he had won just 42.1 percent of his draws (eight wins and 11 losses) through three games.

In the preseason, Mittelstadt said facing some of the opponent’s best players helped him. These days, he studies his shifts with the coaching staff.

“He’s really worked on that part of his game,” Sabres coach Phil Housley said. “He’s made some steps in that area, coming back and supporting down low in the defensive zone. His reads are really good. Those other things will take care of themselves, he’s a very talented and skilled player.

“He’s got to learn to play in his own end, which he’s doing a good job of.”

Much of Mittelstadt’s life has changed since he turned pro in March. Instead of traveling to hockey camps throughout the summer, he stayed at home in Minnesota and concentrated on his training.

“It definitely helped me coming into this year,” he said.

Mittelstadt, who turns 20 on Nov. 22, has never lived outside Minnesota – he grew up in Eden Prairie – for a prolonged period.

“Buffalo’s kind of got a Midwest feel, I guess – right on the lake, things like that,” said Mittelstadt, who has compiled one assist and minus-1 rating this season. “I don’t think it’s been too bad. I don’t miss home or anything like that. It’s actually nice to get out of there for a little bit.”

Mittelstadt also isn’t attending school. While that’s different, he said the hockey part is similar.

“You do the same things at the rink,” he said. “Obviously, practice, workouts are pretty similar. … It’s not too different. It’s nice not have to study and go to class and things like that.”

In his brief time with the Sabres, Mittelstadt has never even practiced beside Johan Larsson, who returned from a lower-body injury Thursday.

While the Sabres used the same lineup in two straight wins, Housley gave Larsson, 26, a look. The Swede, who usually plays center, skated at left wing beside Mittelstadt and Tage Thompson against the Avalanche.

Housley wanted Larsson, who replaced newcomer Remi Elie, to lend some experience to a line that features two neophytes.

“He’s been out for over two weeks now and he’s worked his way back in,” Housley said of Larsson. “We want to get him back in the lineup, get him a game. He can help out on the faceoffs, help out on the penalty kill. And he’s playing with Casey and Thompson … which I think will bring some stability to that line.”

Larsson, one of the longest-tenured Sabres, hurt himself blocking a shot in a Sept. 26 preseason game. He’s fine with playing on the wing.

“I can play both, so I’m comfortable,” Larsson said.

Winger Jason Pominville, 35, played his 664th regular-season game with the Sabres, tying him with Mike Foligno and Ric Seiling for the 10th-most games in team history.

“I’m sure once I’m done playing it’s something I’ll have time to reflect on a little bit more and appreciate more,” Pominville said. “But it’s definitely humbling, having an opportunity to play that many games and stick around for that long. It’s pretty special playing the majority of my games with this team, too.”

Pominville is 17 games behind Rick Martin for ninth on the list.

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