(Editor's note: This story originally appeared in 2018 Future Watch issue of The Hockey News with a cover date of April 2, 2018. It has been edited and updated for online purposes.)
All Casey Mittelstadt needed was the slightest whiff of blood. Seconds later, he’d made his kill.
The target: Slovakian right winger Marian Studenic, desperate to exit his zone, a discarded stick on the ice ensnaring his skates. As Studenic struggled, Mittelstadt crept behind him and snatched the puck like a bird of prey ambushing a mouse. He tore into the Slovakian zone, humiliated blueliner Michal Ivan with a video-game dangle and deked goaltender Roman Durny for the best goal of the 2018 World Junior Championship. Connor McDavid would’ve been proud.
Watching carefully that day in Buffalo was Sabres GM Jason Botterill, who’d drafted Mittelstadt eighth overall six months earlier. While the goal itself was breathtaking, the context particularly impressed Botterill. This was no garbage-time delight in a rout. Mittelstadt made that play to tie the game with Team USA trailing by a goal in the dying minutes of the third period. He did so as the star scorer on the defending WJC gold medal squad, burdened not just by expectations for his nation but also by playing the event in the city of his new NHL team. The U.S. ended up losing that round-robin game and falling in the semifinal, sure, but not because of Mittelstadt. He was named the 2018 World Junior Championship MVP.
“Let’s be honest, it was a scenario that, being a Buffalo Sabres pick playing in Buffalo at the world juniors, could’ve been a situation where it was too much for him,” Botterill said. “But instead, Casey really thrived in that environment.”
Mittelstadt had ferocity in his eyes after scoring that highlight-reel goal, nodding proudly as his teammates mobbed him, and none of that surprised his then-U.S. college coach, Don Lucia of the prestigious NCAA Minnesota Gophers.
“He’s always looking at me, ‘Get me out there,’ Lucia said in March, weeks before leaving his post after 19 seasons. “So I’ve seen that side. On the bench, he’ll get mad. Not that he’s mad at anybody. He wants to win. He wants to be out there in a pressure situation. It’s like a relief pitcher stepping out on the mound in a big moment. You’ve got to want the ball. You can’t shrivel up, and Casey’s not going to do that.”
Mittelstadt echoes that sentiment enthusiastically. He yearns for the puck in high-leverage scenarios, which makes sense considering he’s more battle-hardened than most 19-year-olds, having grown up in the hockey mini-mecca of Eden Prairie, Minn. How crazy are Minnesotans for their top-tier high school hockey? Think West Texas in Friday Night Lights. Mittelstadt calls it the perfect comparison. The weight of being the best player on the state’s top-ranked team acclimatized him to high stakes at a young age. As Lucia pointed out, outsiders don’t understand just how big Minnesota high school hockey really is. For perspective: Stanley Cup winner and Olympic gold medallist Neal Broten once said his greatest career regret was not capturing the Minnesota state championship.
Mittelstadt displayed his ability to come through in the clutch at the 2018 World Junior Championship in Buffalo, where he's set to embark on his NHL career.
Fuelled by a similar desire, Mittelstadt stayed for his senior year with Eden Prairie in 2016-17 after losing in the final despite having an offer to become a Minnesota Gopher early. But whereas Lucia remembers an unnamed NHL team coming into town to scout Mittelstadt and wondering if staying in high school an extra year reflected weak character, Botterill and the Sabres viewed Mittelstadt’s decision as the opposite. It was a display of loyalty and conviction. Botterill lists Mittelstadt’s self-belief as one of his best traits, along with his hockey vision. The eye-popping numbers don’t hurt, either. It’s one thing to light it up in high school, but it’s another to get 64 points in 25 games as a senior. That’s next-level good. Mittelstadt, blessed with tremendous hands, speed and creativity, has the immense ceiling worthy of being ranked as the No. 1 prospect in THN's annual Future Watch issue.
Given the upside, his competitive fire and the fact those close to him describe his off-ice life as “still hockey, obsessively hockey all the time,” it’s no surprise Mittelstadt idolized someone with similar values growing up: Sidney Crosby. They possess some of the same pure offensive skills, though Mittelstadt humbly claims it’s hard for anyone but Crosby to be Crosby.
“My favorite thing he does really well is make everyone around him better,” Mittelstadt said. “When people are saying, ‘This guy plays with Crosby, and when he doesn’t, he’s half a point per game lower,’ that’s the sort of thing I really like. He’s extremely competitive every night, and from what everyone says around the league, it’s pretty much impossible to take the puck from him in the corner. I try to take those things from him and put them into my own game.”
The interesting thing about his fascination with Crosby’s ability to make others better is that Mittelstadt has become so enamored with that trait that it’s as much a weakness as it is a strength in his game. He describes himself as “a passer that likes to get everyone involved,” but Mittelstadt’s vision can sometimes be a curse. He doesn’t rely on his own scoring ability as much as he could.
“You’d like to see him become a little more selfish at times and shoot,” Lucia said. “He’s generally a pass-first guy, wants to set up other players, but he’s got a really good shot. I’d like to see him use his shot more, especially when he’s in a scoring area, release the puck and get it on net rather than taking an extra few seconds…‘Who can I pass to?’ ”
Faceoffs and commitment to defense weren’t Mittelstadt’s strongest skills entering his 2017-18 freshman year at Minnesota, as he was the first to admit, but they’ve steadily improved. And those details come later as a player matures. Look at Crosby as a rookie compared to now. It doesn’t raise scouts’ blood pressure when a teenager loses more than half his faceoffs against grown men. It does, however, cause some panic, irrational or not, when a prospect can’t do a pull-up. Those darned pull-ups. As Sam Bennett can attest, no one wants to believe pull-ups matter, yet the image of a player struggling to do one at the NHL scouting combine can be haunting.
Seriously, Google Mittelstadt’s name and see what image comes up first. The bad news: he became the newest member of the No-Pull-up Club last spring. The good news: he’s increased his brawn exponentially since then. As Lucia explained, the Gophers strength coach took one look at him in the weight room and understood Mittelstadt’s body simply needed manipulation. With one day of proper instruction, he could do five or six pull-ups.
“It was just the way his shoulders were,” Lucia said. “He just needed to get his body in sync. He worked hard last summer and gets another summer of being in the weight room and turning some of that young baby fat into muscle and being in the weight-training program all year-round. He’s a 200-pound kid now. He just needs to redistribute that weight.”
Mittelstadt has the raw scoring ability to rack up points at the NHL level, and he'll give us a taste for a few games in the weeks to come after turning pro and signing his entry-level deal. He'll skate into next season as a Calder Trophy frontrunner. The idea of Jack Eichel and Mittelstadt forming Buffalo’s version of John Tavares and Mathew Barzal down the middle must be tantalizing. Botterill spent years as the Pittsburgh Penguins assistant GM, working for an organization that valued extreme strength and depth at center, and he sees that blueprint unfolding with Eichel, Mittelstadt and Ryan O’Reilly, though Botterill excitedly points out Mittelstadt also has the versatility to play wing.
Who could blame Sabres Nation for celebrating Mittelstadt's decision to leave school after one year? It’s been a difficult decade in Buffalo. The Sabres have missed the playoffs for a seventh straight season and ninth time in 11 years. One failed rebuild has bled into another. Despite adding first-round prospects such as Eichel and Rasmus Ristolainen to build around, the Sabres’ points percentage will decline for a third consecutive season. Swapping in Botterill for Tim Murray as GM and Phil Housley for Dan Bylsma as coach hasn’t produced improvement yet. There’s little doubt Mittelstadt can slide right into a top-six role and play significant minutes. Not that he cares about that. Nothing about the easy route to a job appeals to him.
“You’d rather join a winning team and then earn your spot and grow like that,” Mittelstadt said. “That’s the ideal situation.”
Mittelstadt never lacks for self-assuredness or work ethic. Though he’s not yet a complete player, no one should bet against him sanding out every last rough edge in his game. The best prospects match their talent with ambition, and that’s why he topped the THN scouting panel’s board in 2018.