Is 2020-21 Make or Break for Casey Mittelstadt?

On December 23rd, 2020, the Buffalo Sabres announced that Casey Mittelstadt had returned to the team, putting pen to paper on a new one-year contract.

After bursting onto the scene following his amateur career with the Minnesota Golden Gophers, expectations were high for the 22-year-old. However, he’s thus far struggled to replicate his early promise in the National Hockey League.

Of course, transitioning to the top tier of professional hockey isn’t one that many seamlessly make. During the 2018-19 season, Mittelstadt looked to have hit the ground running, scoring 12 goals and registering 13 assists in 77 games.

The next campaign, however, proved to be less fruitful. It resulted in the Edina-born playmaker moving to the Sabres’ affiliate AHL team, the Rochester Americans. Because of that, 2020-21 will be a significant year in Mittelstadt’s career. So, is it fair to say that it’s make or break?

Signing a New One-Year Deal

As mentioned above, the 22-year-old recently signed a new deal with the Sabres, and it will keep him with the six-time division championship winners until the end of the 2020-21 season. According to Puck Prose, the contract is worth $874,125, and the 22-year-old was the team’s final Restricted Free Agent.

On paper, the decision to retain Mittelstadt for another year could prove beneficial to all parties. Primarily, the Sabres haven’t tied themselves down to a long-term contract with a player that is yet to showcase his full potential. As such, this allows them to reconsider their stance on the 22-year-old at the end of his newly-signed deal. For the playmaker, on the other hand, he has another opportunity to prove that he’s an NHL-level player.

Although he is now 22, few can dispute that Mittelstadt hasn’t shown glimpses of his talent, with some even comparing him to Sabres Hall of Famer, Alexander Mogilny. While there are no guarantees that the youngster will reach such a level, this undeniable potential will have been at the forefront of the Buffaslugs’ decision to re-sign him.

Fighting for his NHL Future

On the face of it, it’s not unfair to suggest that the upcoming 2020-21 campaign – which begins on January 13th, 2021 – is arguably the most important of Mittelstadt’s career. Fundamentally, the 22-year-old needs to work on his consistency in relation to both creating and scoring goals. However, there’s a widespread belief that the playmaker’s flashy style somewhat papers over the cracks of his obvious flaws.

As per Die By The Blade, Mittelstadt has long struggled with contributing defensively, as well as endurance, puck possession, and out-of-possession play. Because a focus is now on the 22-year-old’s shortcomings, he’ll likely come under heightened scrutiny in 2020-21. Not only that, but Mittelstadt also has to win over the Sabres’ loyal fan base. Upon being drafted by the team back in 2017, supporters questioned the decision to bring in the Minnesota-born center.

Regarding his opportunities come the start of the new season, the 22-year-old will struggle to start at center given the recent arrival of Cody Eakin on a two-year contract. Furthermore, shifting Mittelstadt to the wing may not be a viable option given his existing in-game shortcomings.

Striving for a Playoff Spot
At the time of writing, the Sabres’ wait for a place in the playoffs is nearing ten years. Last season, the Buffaslugs ended the campaign sixth in the Atlantic Division, three points behind the Montreal Canadiens. As of December 29th, Ralph Krueger’s side are valued at  +1400 to win the East Division in 2020-21, and Mittelstadt’s contributions could be central to their success.

Along with the 22-year-old, one player who may help them end their drought is Taylor Hall, who recently signed a one-year deal with the Buffalo Sabres. The 2018 Hart Memorial Trophy Winner spearheaded the New Jersey Devils’ playoff finish back in 2018, and he could undoubtedly do the same for the Buffaslugs.

Success or Failure, the Ball’s in Mittelstadt’s Court
Given his age, it’s perhaps a little harsh to say with certainty that the 2020-21 season is make or break for Mittelstadt. However, it certainly feels that way. The former Minnesota Golden Gophers center is capable of both delighting and frustrating, which is perhaps why he often comes under such scrutiny. The talent is there to establish himself as an NHL-standard player, and now he must do so, ironing out his flaws in the process.

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