The Buffalo Sabres were down and out last season, but a great summer has the franchise looking at better days in 2018-19. On top of drafting defenseman Rasmus Dahlin first overall, the Sabres acquired Jeff Skinner from Carolina, while also adding Stanley Cup winner Conor Sheary from Pittsburgh. Sure, Ryan O’Reilly was dealt to St. Louis, but the veteran pivot brought a nice return. And if Buffalo is looking for someone to form a 1-2 punch down the middle with Jack Eichel, it’s fair to say the majority of eyes will fall on rookie Casey Mittelstadt, who gives the team two Calder Trophy candidates, alongside Dahlin.
To prepare for his first full NHL campaign, Mittelstadt made sure he had a big summer.
“For me it was getting in the weight room, obviously; everyone knew that,” he said. “Skate as much I can and work on a lot of little things, but my main goal was definitely getting stronger.”
While no one ever really cared about Mittelstadt’s struggles at the 2017 draft combine, the 19-year-old is looking bigger now. His bread and butter will always be his hands and vision, however, and those gifts appear to put him in line for a juicy roster spot this year.
“I try not to think about it too much,” Mittelstadt said. “It’s just, go out and play hockey and do my best. You have to work hard and you have to earn it.”
After just one season with the University of Minnesota, Mittelstadt turned pro. Thanks to the schedule, the former USHL and Minnesota high school star got into six games with the Sabres, putting up an impressive five points. More importantly though, he got a sneak peek at the NHL lifestyle and was grateful for it.
“Just figuring out everything off the ice,” he said. “Like getting to the plane, how guys get ready for games, when the meetings are - that was the biggest part for me.”
For a young man who has pinballed around the Great Lakes region for the past two years, it will be nice for Mittelstadt to have one address this year.
“I’m definitely looking forward to that,” he said “Green Bay, high school, ‘The U’ - yeah, I’ve been back and forth quite a bit. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind, but I’ve loved it.”
Mittelstadt has been in Buffalo three weeks already, as have many of the young Sabres. Veterans have also trickled in early and the rookie was happy to have players like Jason Pominville and Kyle Okposo already there. Mittelstadt also got a taste of how the Sabres’ group rolls when Jack Eichel came to Minnesota over the summer to hang out. In total, about seven members of the Sabres got together for some golf, including coach Phil Housley.
That camaraderie will help, as Buffalo attempts to come up from a last-place finish in the NHL that saw them fall short of 200 goals - the only team in the league under that offensive benchmark. Mittelstadt can certainly help in that respect, while having Dahlin on the back end will make the whole attack more dangerous, too.
“He’s the smoothest skater I’ve probably ever seen,” Mittelstadt said. “The way he can move the puck and use his hands is pretty impressive. I’ve played against him and when you play with him, it’s a lot better.”
Now it’s about putting it all together. On paper, the Sabres are better. The mission now is to apply it to the ice. At the least, Mittelstadt already detects some pretty strong resolve from the group.
“Last year was tough on them, but you go through the highs and lows together,” he said. “It makes for a tight group. We’re going to have some new faces this year and it should be exciting.”