Casey Mittelstadt and Bowen Byram switched teams Wednesday. ©2024, Micheline Veluvolu

Sabres sad, surprised Casey Mittelstadt traded, excited for Bowen Byram

TORONTO – Sooner or later, it was going to happen. Over the past few years, as the Sabres grew into a tight-knit group, their young core remained intact. But as the team evolved and needs materialized and the salary cap became a factor again, someone would have to leave Buffalo.

On Wednesday, two days before the trade deadline, it happened. The Sabres dealt center Casey Mittelstadt, a beloved teammate and their leading scorer, to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for defenseman Bowen Byram.

“I spent a lot of time with Casey over the years, watched him evolve as a player and put the work in to get to the point that he’s gotten, and it was a tough day knowing we were parting ways,” coach Don Granato said following the Sabres’ 2-1 overtime loss to the Maple Leafs. “And, obviously, (I) wish him the best. He’s done an amazing job and he’s very dedicated, committed to the Sabres.”

The deal, of course, comes as a shock. Mittelstadt, 25, has been the Sabres’ best forward since late last season, and he has compiled 14 goals and 47 points in 62 games this year.

But Mittelstadt, who participated in the Sabres’ optional skate prior to Wednesday’s game at Scotiabank Arena, likely priced himself out of Buffalo. As a restricted free agent following the season, he might command a hefty contract worth more than $6 million a season.

Mittelstadt, the eighth overall pick in 2017 by general manager Kevyn Adams’ predecessor, Jason Botterill, is in the final season of a three-year, $7.5 million contract.

The Sabres have recently awarded huge deals to some of their stars and have several other talented youngsters who need new contracts in the near future.

Colorado’s offer for Mittelstadt was apparently too good to refuse. Adams hasn’t spoken to the media since completing the deal.

Granato said when he called Byram, who knows some Sabres well, including center Dylan Cozens, his close friend, he “could not believe how excited he was about coming to our team.”

“He knows lots of guys in the locker room,” Granato said. “He’s played with guys in the locker room. He spent time with (Cozens) even recently. He was excited to join us. That, obviously, picked me up hearing that. He’s one heck of a player, so it was a swap of two very accomplished young hockey players, very talented.”

Sabres center Peyton Krebs, who has known Byram since they were kids, said Mittelstadt was “an unbelievable teammate and represented Buffalo really well.”

“I couldn’t say enough good things about him,” he said. “It hurts my heart to say a thing about it, but we got a guy I’ve known since I was probably 8 years old. Bo is an unbelievable guy, love him to death and I think he’s going to fit so well into our group.”

In Byram, 22, the Sabres have added another young asset to their defense corps. Byram, the fourth pick in 2019, joins Rasmus Dahlin, 23, Owen Power, 21, Henri Jokiharju, 24, and the injured Mattias Samuelsson, 23, on one of the NHL’s youngest blue lines.

The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Byram won the Stanley Cup with Colorado in 2022, often playing alongside Sabres defenseman Erik Johnson late in the postseason.

Byram did not play for the Sabres on Wednesday, a game Leafs superstar Auston Matthews won 4:20 into overtime. Granato said he expects Byram to play in tonight’s road game against the Nashville Predators alongside Dahlin.

He battled concussions early in his NHL career and missed a few months during the 2021-22 season.

Byram, a left-handed shot, has one season left on his two-year, $7.7 million contract before he becomes a restricted free agent.

He has registered 23 goals, 63 points and 113 penalty minutes in 146 career NHL games, including eight goals, 20 points and 40 penalty minutes in 55 contests this season.

So, who can fill some of the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Mittelstadt’s minutes? Well, right now, Krebs, who has often been utilized as a checker, might move up to a scoring line. Krebs pivoted rookie Zach Benson and Victor Olofsson against the Leafs.

The Sabres also have some high-end center prospects, including Jiri Kulich, who has scored 17 goals for the Rochester Americans this season, and Matt Savoie, a junior star. They both made their NHL debuts this season, each playing one game for Buffalo.

However, Kulich, 19, and Savoie, 20, aren’t ready for regular NHL duty.

It will be nearly impossible to replace Mittelstadt’s production, at least right away. From March 6, 2023 entering Wednesday’s schedule, he recorded 19 goals and a team-high 67 points – the NHL’s 53rd-highest total – in 83 outings. His 56 even-strength points during that stretch ranked 20th in the league.

He joined the Sabres late in 2017-18 following his freshman season at the University of Minnesota. After enduring some adversity, including a demotion to the minors and stints on the taxi squad, he emerged as a consistent scoring threat after Granato took over in March 2021.

Mittelstadt compiled 62 goals and 186 points in 339 games with the Sabres.

Prior to the game, the Sabres recalled winger Lukas Rousek from Rochester.

Rousek, 24, has scored 10 goals and 38 points in 48 games this season. The Czech went pointless in five contests with Buffalo earlier this year.

The Sabres scratched Rousek and inserted Olofsson, who had sat out nine straight games as a healthy scratch.

Olofsson scored his first goal since Dec. 7, ending a 20-game drought.

With Mittelstadt gone, Zemgus Girgensons moved from left wing to center.

The Sabres scratched Erik Johnson, 35, for the fourth straight game. They began sitting the veteran last week to protect their asset before the trade deadline.

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