Casey Mittelstadt continues to have a whirlwind existence in the NHL. Since being taken eighth overall by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2017 NHL Draft, the 23-year-old has had a rough go of it, and that continued in the 2021-22 season after an upper-body injury limited him to just 40 games. Fans have been waiting for good things from the American, but they may be running out of patience with him. It’s not entirely Mittlestadt’s fault for his lack of consistency to this point, however.
Did the Sabres Ruin Mittelstadt?
Mittelstadt has had a dubious relationship with Buffalo Sabres fans since the day he was drafted. Due to his perceived lack of athletic ability, fans were displeased with his selection, and wrote it off as yet another mistake by the team’s front office. That soon changed, however. Mittelstadt tore up the 2018 World Junior Championship in Buffalo, winning a bronze medal with the United States and earning tournament MVP honors in the process. Suddenly, the aura of disappointment surrounding him had transformed into excitement. But unfortunately for him, that may have been his undoing.
To say that the Sabres bungled Mittelstadt’s development would be an enormous understatement. The team decided to move on from Ryan O’Reilly after the 2017-18 season, and sent him to the St. Louis Blues in a blockbuster trade. Failing to grasp the sizable void that O’Reilly would leave, and having witnessed his dazzling performance at the World Juniors, the Sabres decided Mittelstadt was ready for the big time and made him their second line center for the 2018-19 season. Though he performed well for a 20-year-old with just a single year of college experience, it was obvious from the beginning that the choice was not a wise one. Mittelstadt looked like a deer in the headlights for the entire season, and finished his rookie year with just 12 goals and 13 assists in 77 games. He’s been trying to rectify his career ever since.
Another Frustrating Season for Mittelstadt
Mittelstadt was expected to breakout in 2021-22 by fans and critics alike. After a encouraging 2021 season in which he returned from Rochester of the American Hockey League (AHL) and scored 22 points in 41 games (one of few bright spots during the dismal campaign), the Sabres displayed their faith by re-signing him to a three-year contract. He appeared ready to take a step forward in his career, and entered the season as the team’s number one center.
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Sadly for Mittelstadt, he just can’t seem to catch a break. His hopes for improvement were immediately dashed by an upper-body injury he sustained in Buffalo’s first game of the year. He was able to return in December, but was sidelined by the same injury after just three games, and was forced to undergo surgery to correct it. In total, the ailment wound up costing him over half the season.
In spite of this, Mittelstadt still managed to post a decent campaign. 19 points in 40 games is hardly something to write home about, but since it nearly matched his production from the prior season, it’s not atrocious. The highlight of the year for Mittelstadt came in Buffalo’s season finale on April 29 against Chicago, when he scored overtime winner. Not only was it was a great way to end the season on a high note for the Sabres, but it also capped off an emotional farewell to Rick Jeanneret and sent the legendary broadcaster off in memorable fashion.
However, as great of a moment as that was, it doesn’t change the fact that another season is now in the books, and Mittelstadt is still struggling to find his footing. Though it’s tough hold injuries against a player, it would also be tough to look at this season as a step in the wrong direction for the Minnesotan. It begs the question: how many more chances will the Sabres be willing to give him before deciding enough is enough?
Is Next Year Mittelstadt’s Last Chance?
The talent and potential for Mittelstadt have always been there. He showcases great vision on the ice, and his passing is impressive. His ability to avoid penalties is also very underrated, and he’s never taken more than five in a single season. The only true issue he’s had to this point is his durability and he’ll have to find a way to stay healthy for a majority of next season.
The 2022-23 season is going to be critical for Mittelstadt, as it might be his last chance in Buffalo. Though the Sabres are largely at fault for his issues due to all the mistakes they’ve made, he will have to show that he’s worth keeping around, or general manager Kevyn Adams could judge that it’s time to move on. If the the talented-but-unproven forward can tap into his potential and turn some heads next season, he could become a dangerous weapon for the Sabres going forward. If not, he may be wearing the another team’s jersey in the near future. Mittelstadt’s grade for 2021-22: C.