What a difference a year makes.
Last year at this time, many Sabres fans were ready to write off Casey Mittelstadt as a failed 8th overall pick due to his relatively poor production at the NHL level. The Sabres too demonstrated that they were ready to pivot off Mittelstadt in the 2020 offseason as they had traded for Eric Staal to be their second line center, and signed Cody Eakin and Curtis Lazar to be the 3rd and 4th line centers.
Mittelstadt was former Sabres GM Jason Botterill’s first selection during his first off season with the team in 2017 following the 2016-2017 season which was very good to the Sabres as they made the playoffs and everything went extremely well. Joking, obviously. The Sabres were bad (again) and Tim Murray and coach Dan Bylsma were fired because of that which led to Botterill taking over at the conclusion of the season in April. Perhaps it was the looming specter of a Ryan O’Reilly trade, or perhaps Botterill simply felt that Mittelstadt was the best player available, but either way, Mittelstadt was the Sabres pick at the top of the draft.
The Minnesota native played both for his high school, Eden Prairie High, as well for the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL in the season prior to his draft, where he put up 64 points in 25 games and 30 points in 24 games, respectively. Mittelstadt’s draft stock took a considerable hit at the combine where he failed to do a single pull-up and a picture of that strained effort became a sort of NHL meme. The fact that the young American didn’t excel physically at the combine foreshadowed a recurring theme throughout the first few years following his draft: Mittelstadt’s conditioning looked subpar. Despite that, Mittelstadt had nearly a point-per-game freshman year at the University of Minnesota and an unforgettable performance at the World Junior Championship in Buffalo where he took home MVP honors while getting 3 assists in the outdoor game versus Canada.
The 6’1” center would join the Sabres late in the 2017-2018 season and put up 5 points in 6 games to close the season. It was pretty much all down hill from there until April of 2021. Mittelstadt muddled through the 2018-2019 season but was put in a terrible position following the trade of Ryan O’Reilly and the then-20-year-old was being relied on to carry far too much of a load as 2nd line center with only Evan Rodrigues and Johan Larsson pushing him for playing time at the center position. He would finish that season with 25 points in 77 games and the Sabres hoped to get more out of him the following year, which didn’t happen. In 2019-2020, Mittelstadt would be sent down to Rochester midway through the year after scoring only 9 points in 31 games with bench boss Ralph Krueger.
Even as late last March of 2021 it looked bleak for Mittelstadt who only played 12 games and scored 4 points under Krueger before the coach’s dismissal in mid-March. Mittelstadt, though, would deliver an explosive offensive output from the beginning of April until the end of the season to the tune of 17 points in 22 games under new head coach Don Granato. That’s a 63-point season over the course of 82 games which makes Mittelstadt a natural fit to take the reins as the top-line center for the Sabres in the coming season. Sam Reinhart finished the season with .77 points-per-game, which is equal to the pace that Mittelstadt put up during those 22 games to end the season so there’s the hope – and perhaps even the evidence in a small sample size – that Casey Mittelstadt can put up comparable 1C numbers to those that Reinhart put up following his move to center at the end of the season.
Speaking of Reinhart, he most often played with Jeff Skinner and Victor Olofsson at even strength following his move to center, and that seems like a very reasonable place to put Mittelstadt as well. The playmaking center is a natural fit with two shooters like Skinner and Olofsson who could excel with a pass-first guy like Casey Mittelstadt holding it down in the middle. It’s obvious that the Sabres don’t have a ton of start power to concentrate in the top-6 which means that they need to combine players with the most offensive potential together while trying to mesh their skillsets to create a mixture that can succeed in putting up points. Would a grouping of Skinner, Mittelstadt and Olofsson be bad defensively?
So put them in favorable positions by giving them a ton of offensive zone starts against weaker competition when the Sabres are allowed the last change. There are ways to massage player usage to get the most out of a group while minimizing their deficiencies in order to… dare I say it… create synergy. Mittelstadt’s game is predicated on his silky-smooth hands and his ability to find the open man in space, but his skating tends to be underappreciated when he gets up to top speed. With his conditioning in a better place now, Mittelstadt looks poised to line up all of his positive attributes and put them to good use for the Sabres.
Simply put, Casey Mittelstadt is the only potential high-end center on this roster that has actually demonstrated good offensive production at the NHL level. Dylan Cozens hasn’t show that he’s ready to produce offense at a level commensurate with 1st line usage in the NHL despite his feisty attitude, and there’s no one behind Cozens that would make any sense at all to put at 1C. There’s no Eric Staal or Sam Reinhart on the team to take over the 1st line minutes.
Mittelstadt is the man for the job.
– Casey Mittelstadt – Victor Olofsson
– X – Tage Thompson
- Rasmus Asplund
- Vinnie Hinostroza
- John Hayden
- Kyle Okposo
– Henri Jokiharju
– Mark Pysyk
- Colin Miller
Oh, there’s also another center to talk about and his name is Jack Eichel.
Truthfully, it’s become incredibly tiresome to continually write about the Jack Eichel saga, but the story must be told. Eichel will be the first-line center on the team if-and-when he returns to the lineup because he is the best player the Sabres have had in 20 years. It’s curious that we’ve not seen anything come out of the report from Shawn Simpson of TSN in which he said he heard that Eichel will soon be having neck surgery. That report reached Twitter last week and it’s been radio silence since then.
So, what’s going to happen next?
No idea. This entire situation has been a labyrinth since the beginning and there’s no outcome that would surprise me at this point. Elliotte Friedman had this to say yesterday in his column which runs counter to Simpson’s report:
The Sabres had an “introductory meeting” with Jack Eichel’s new representatives. Both sides are trying to keep things very quiet, but, as of yet, word is there’s no resolution. As with many of our own responsibilities, several NHL situations picked up steam after Labour Day. I do believe Buffalo re-engaged with interested teams to see where everyone stands. We will see where things go
I still think there's a decent chance that Eichel suits up for at least a few games this year to prove he's healthy to other teams looking to acquire him. We shall see.