Mittelstadt demotion a reminder of risks

On Monday, the Sabres made the smart and wise decision to send struggling youngster Casey Mittelstadt down to Rochester.

This was a move that needed to happen as Mittelstadt had looked more lost and less confident as a player as the season has progressed. While this certainly is a disappointment for the team and Mittelstadt himself, many players have rebounded from making a move like this. His failure to grow and become an impact player for Buffalo is a cautionary tale for expectations with younger players.

By the time the Sabres drafted Mittelstadt in 2017, he was regarded as a really smooth, quick playmaker who should be a nice compliment to Jack Eichel. That year at the World Juniors, he dominated for team USA and won MVP of the World Junior tournament. In the last 6 games of the 2017-18 season, Casey got the call-up and had five points in six games, showing many flashes of the skill and ability Buffalo was hoping for.

Heading into the 2018-19 season, Mittelstadt was in many hockey previews as one of the top youngsters that season. But during the off-season, the trade of Ryan O’Reilly significantly altered the Sabres center lineup and the pressure was thrown on Mittelstadt to immediately be the guy.

Having an established center of any form would’ve reduced the pressure on Mittelstadt and allowed him to hone his game. Moving one of the best two-way centers in hockey and expecting Mittelstadt to make up the difference was in retrospect straight unfair to any young player.

Sabres GM Jason Botterill deserves criticism for hurting Mittelstadt’s development by not having another established center to shield him, and not sending him down last season. In the first two months of the 2018-19 season, Mittelstadt had nine points in 27 games.

At the time, the team was having success and he at least showed flashes. But since that time, Mittelstadt has been a shell of the player who came on to the scene, looking like a faster version of former Sabre stud Tim Connolly. When he has the puck you can see his indecision and it has hurt his team as a result. The Sabres have paired him with wingers like Jimmy Vesey and Conor Sheary, who will each put up 10-15 goals and 30 points. That is fine for those players as they are expected to be 3rd line role players, but the issue is that Mittelstadt should be helping to elevate their play. Instead, all of his advanced stats show he is actually bringing their performances down.

The 2017 NHL draft in retrospect is looking lighter in terms of real production compared to those drafts since or in years prior. Center Elias Pettersson for Vancouver is a stud as is Miro Heiskanen on defense for Dallas. But in general, top picks Nico Hischier has been just okay for New Jersey and Nolan Patrick for Philadelphia has been a disappointment given his draft position. Mittelstadt fits right in with this draft group of being another player who showed a lot of skill but the results have been minimal at best.

Given the number of NHL stars who have entered the league as teenagers or very young 20-year-olds, some of the disappointment with Mittelstadt and the 2017 draft year just stems from seeing what everyone else has done and the success they’ve shown. By the same token, though, it highlights how the NHL still needs to put many top draft picks in the minors first to groom the players game before letting them play in the big show.

Despite the slow start for Mittelstadt, there absolutely is hope he can kickstart things back in the right direction.

Chris Taylor is a great coach and tutor for young players in Rochester. He will help Mittelstadt elevate his play and get him the minutes he desperately needs to groom his skills. Former Sabre great Brian Campbell took a few years going between Buffalo and Rochester before ascending into an all-star defenseman.

By all accounts, Mittelstadt is a hard worker and a good teammate so the effort is not an issue. Sabres forward Victor Olofsson is 24 and spent years in the minors and Swedish professional leagues before finally getting his chance this year. He now is the best winger the Sabres have and a true success story of patience and development. Hopefully, Mittelstadt takes this as an opportunity to do similar and refine his play.


Craig Mazuchowski
SUNY Oswego Alumni. Self-taught guitarist. I've been a Sabres and hockey fan since birth. I've also refereed youth hockey and play in a men’s league. My tombstone will be in the shape of pizza.
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