When the Buffalo Sabres used the eighth-overall selection in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft to pick Casey Mittelstadt, expectations were immediately high for the young forward prospect. He seemed to have all the skill and talent needed to make an impact at center ice in the NHL, but it hasn’t quite worked out as expected for either himself or the Sabres just yet. Toward the end of last season, however, he stepped up and played bigger minutes, took on a bigger role, and looked like one of the most improved players on the Sabres by season’s end. The upcoming 2021-22 season is a chance for him to finally break out in a big way, and I think he possesses all the tools he needs to prove he was worth the wait.
Sabres Had Big Expectations For Mittelstadt
For Sabres fans, it might seem like the Sabres have been waiting forever for Mittelstadt to develop. But at just 22-years-old, he’s still learning how to play in the NHL, and has time to strengthen and improve his body and game in the coming years. A native of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, the 6-foot-1, 196-pound center has taken longer than some players from his draft class to develop, but looks to finally be catching up. When expectations were set so high for him straight out of the gate, though, it created a sense of urgency in his development, and that’s entirely understandable given some of his performances before coming to the NHL.
Mittelstadt was one of the stars for the United States at the 2018 World Junior Championship held in Buffalo, where he showcased just what kind of dynamic offensive power he could bring to the Sabres down the road. He led that tournament with four goals, seven assists, and 11 points in seven games en route to winning a bronze medal, and was named most valuable player of the tournament, as well as the best forward. That performance certainly increased expectations for his entrance into the NHL, too.
After his impressive display at the World Junior Championship, Mittelstadt continued his top-end play at the University of Minnesota in the 2017-18 NCAA college hockey season, his only one before turning pro and joining the Sabres’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate Rochester Americans. In 34 games as a freshman, he scored 11 goals and 19 assists for 30 points. All signs pointed to an NHL-ready player, but as fans are well aware now, another season or two of college hockey might not have been the worst idea for the late-blooming Mittelstadt. Luckily, he’s caught up and matured quite a bit physically, and it was noticeable last season.
Mittelstadt Stepped Up Big Last Season
Prior to the 2020-21 season, Mittelstadt hadn’t made a lasting impression in the NHL or proved he was ready for an important role on the Sabres. In fact, he was actually demoted to the AHL Amerks for an extended amount of time to develop and see how he performed there. His career-high in points before last season came in 2018-19, when he scored 25 points in 77 games, a disappointing stat line for almost a full 82-game span, and certainly not what was expected of the former first-round draft pick. That all changed last season, when he showed a glimpse of what he can really be in the NHL one day.
Mittelstadt didn’t play every game for the Sabres in the shortened 56-game 2020-21 season, but he did play a significant amount of them – 41, to be exact. In those 41 games, he scored 10 goals, 12 assists, and 22 points, just three points shy of his career high, in nearly half the games played. He also saw time on the Sabres power play and penalty kill units, scoring 6 power play points (PPP), two short-handed points, and notching two game-winning goals along with an impressive 16.4 shooting percentage (S%), also a career high. If you were looking for improvement from this player, he did not fall short one bit.
Mittelstadt’s stat line from last season would have been on pace for 20 goals and 44 points pro-rated over a full 82 game season, which would have been considered a successful season for him by all metrics. Much of his success could be attributed to more playing time; when the Sabres got hit with the injury bug last season, he saw more minutes as a result. Playing in the top six next season could be the best thing for his game, and it’s exciting to think he hasn’t even tapped the surface of his potential yet. In 155 career games with the Sabres, Mittelstadt has scored 27 goals, 34 assists, and 61 points, along with 19 PPP and a 12.2 S%.
Mittelstadt Has Chance to Break Out In 2021-22
Mittelstadt is a restricted free agent (RFA) and has yet to re-sign with the Sabres, so he’s in the same boat as fellow RFAs Rasmus Dahlin and Henri Jokiharju. The expectation, of course, is that all three of these players will be re-signed before training camp, so it’s only a matter of time before he has his new deal. The last contract he signed was his first after his entry-level contract (ELC), a one-year deal worth $874,125 he signed on Dec. 23, 2020.
Since he is expected to be part of the new core moving forward, Mittelstadt will undoubtedly have every opportunity to prove himself as a leader in all situations next season. Since the Sabres look positioned to finish near the bottom of the NHL standings again as they embark on their second rebuild in a decade, the pressure to win will be lower, which could take some pressure off his shoulders, a good thing for not just him, but other young pieces like Dylan Cozens, Tage Thompson, and Dahlin, too.
In his exit interview following the end of the 2020-21 regular season, Mittelstadt said “I obviously want to be a leader. I think every guy wants to be a leader… If something needs to be said, and I think I’m the guy to say it, I’ll say it.” (From ‘Young Sabres will need to step up after a Jack Eichel departure’ WGRZ, 5/11/2021)
His teammates already see him as a leader, and last season only helped to build his case as one. “I think they both had terrific seasons,” said Thompson about Mittelstadt in his own exit interview. Casey was on a roll and just taking over games. I think that season’s going to do nothing but good things for everybody.”
Once Mittelstadt signs his new contract, the focus will shift to training camp, then to the regular season ahead. Surrounded by plenty of talented young players, he’ll have a chance to shine and continue his strong play under now full-time head coach Don Granato, and hopefully, he’ll establish himself as a break out star this season.
Brandon is a Buffalo Sabres & San Jose Sharks Contributor for THW and Co-Host of THW’s ‘Sabres Scoop,’ who received his Master of Science in Sport Administration from Canisius College in Buffalo, NY, and founded his website, Seltytending, in 2017. He is an avid hockey writer and podcaster with prior work experience in the OJHL, NWHL, and NCAA. Twitter: @BSalts15