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Team USA’s Mittelstadt emerging as breakout star of the 2018 WJC

Team USA’s Casey Mittelstadt has provided plenty of highlight-reel material at the 2018 World Junior Championship in Buffalo — as well as hope for the future for success-starved Sabres fans.

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The fact that Casey Mittelstadt is dominating at the 2018 World Junior Championship is not a huge surprise. But the fact that he’s doing it in Buffalo is a wonderful coincidence and an enormous shot in the arm to one of the NHL’s longest-suffering fan bases.

You see, there aren’t many markets in the NHL that need something, anything, to cling to more than the one that houses the Buffalo Sabres. And it may just have found that in Mittelstadt, who leads the tournament in scoring and put on a one-man show with three eye-popping assists in Team USA’s 4-3 shootout win over Canada in the World Junior Outdoor Cash Grab of Hockey™ Friday. Mittelstadt fell to eighth in what is looking like a pretty strong draft in 2017 and the Sabres got him. Nobody is saying anything, but it would not be a surprise if Mittelstadt turns out to be a one-and-done at the University of Minnesota and signs with the Sabres before next season.

And the fact that he’s giving the Sabres and their fans a tantalizing preview of his skills is a neat subplot to the tournament. As one Twitter smart aleck noted Friday, Mittelstadt will soften the blow when Jack Eichel makes his inevitable demand to be shipped out of Buffalo in a couple of years. Mittelstadt, for one, wasn’t buying the notion that he was getting a little more juice out of playing in front of the fans he hopes to be entertaining for a long time, and neither was his coach.

“I’m from Minnesota and so is he,” said Bob Motzko, who coaches the varsity team at St. Cloud State University when he isn’t Team USA’s coach for the WJC. “I’ve seen him do that a lot at a lot of levels. And I think he’s going to continue to do that a lot. He’s just a talented, talented player.”

That is indeed Mittelstadt’s calling card. His wizardry with the puck draws comparisons to Clayton Keller, who was a possession machine at the tournament last year. Mittelstadt indeed drives possession the way Keller did and has dynamic puck skills to get it into the right places and to the right people when he sees them in scoring positions. It’s clear he sees the game at a much higher level than do most of his peers.

“I’ve known Casey since the 10th grade and I played with him for two or three years,” said Montreal Canadiens first-rounder Ryan Poehling, a fellow Minnesotan and Mittelstadt’s teammate on the American squad. “I’ve said it since Day 1, he’s one of the most highly talented kids I’ve ever seen play the game. For him to come out there on this type of ice, with that much snow, and to do that, it’s pretty cool to see. Especially in his hometown of Buffalo.”

A little presumptuous, no? Darn right. If the Sabres had their way, they probably wouldn’t let Mittelstadt past the city limits after this tournament ends next Friday night and they’ve got to be hoping that Mittelstadt indeed adopts their city as his hometown for a long time. And after watching the way Mittelstadt and 2018 draft-eligible winger Brady Tkachuk clicked when Motzko juggled his lines in the third period, the Sabres might want to seriously consider taking Tkachuk with what will almost certainly be another top-five pick this June. After all, taking Tkachuks has worked out pretty well in the past. “I played with ‘Yamo’ (Edmonton Oilers prospect Kailer Yamamoto) a lot in this tournament and we’ve had some good chemistry,” Mittelstadt said. “And (Motzko) put Tkachuk with us and he complements us well. ‘Yamo’ and I like to move the puck around and make plays with the puck on our sticks and ‘Chucky’ likes to go to the net.”

It’s a rather intriguing combination. Mittelstadt is more of a set-up man than a finisher to be sure. “If I’ve got to shoot it, I’ve got to shoot it…but I might be a little more pass-first,” he said. “I like to see my teammates score and I like to celebrate with them after they score. Every time I can pass, I’ll probably pass, but I’m not afraid to shoot it.” So having someone who drives the net and can score is pretty much a perfect on-ice companion for him. Last season’s Mr. Hockey, a title that goes to the top high school player in the state of Minnesota, certainly has the unique combination of puck poise and vision to make those kinds of plays.

“I take a lot of time in the summer to work on my hands, my vision, things like that,” Mittelstadt said. “I think that’s probably the biggest key for me, to make sure I’m always fine-tuning it. Even during the year that’s the first thing I go to if I feel like I’m not playing well. I go right back to stickhandling and working on my vision and things like that. It’s a lot of work.”

And it won’t get any easier. The Sabres are patiently waiting for Mittelstadt and Eichel to form the deadly 1-2 combination down the middle that will help rise them to the ranks of the NHL’s contenders.