We’re a little over a week into the preseason and some players are continuing to make their cases to earn spots on the Buffalo Sabres roster. Some players are off to a slow start and still trying to refine their game before the regular season opens in just over a week.
Casey Mittelstadt falls into the latter category. His early season struggles go back to the Prospects Challenge. He seemed to be fighting the puck during the tournament and was trying to be too cute at times. The 2017 first-round pick recorded three assists in the three games, but all of which came in the Sabres 10-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
In two preseason games, the slow start has continued. Mittelstadt has made some plays, but for the most part has been nonexistent. He has no points and four shots on goals in the two games he’s played.
We’ve seen Mittelstadt dominate his peers at the World Junior Championship last season and have a good Freshman campaign at the University of Minnesota. He even played well in his small six-game NHL stint with the Sabres, recording five points during that stretch.
All of that has contributed to perhaps some overinflated expectations for Mittelstadt. There’s no denying he’s one of the better prospects in all of the NHL with his ceiling, however, he’s only 19-years-old. He has one year of college hockey under he belt and still has a lot of developing to do while adjusting to playing in the best league in the world.
Not to mention, he’s transitioning to playing one of the most difficult positions on the ice. He’s not only responsible for being a playmaker offensively but has a lot of defensive responsibilities that can be hard for young players to grasp early in their careers.
Therefore, it’s not unexpected for Mittelstadt to have some struggles early on this season. This is one of the reasons that keeping Ryan O’Reilly for one more season could have made sense for the Sabres. It allowed them to protect Mittelstadt with O’Reilly and Jack Eichel as the top two centers.
Now, those responsibilities fall on the shoulders of Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka. The Minnesota native will one day take over as the second-line center on this club, but it may not be on October 4. For that matter, it may be in November or December.
The importance of Berglund being able to handle some top-six minutes and play in difficult situations this year will go a long way in allowing Mittelstadt to settle into his role.
Regardless, we’re going to see some first-year mistakes and slumps from Mittelstadt. If you take some of the best young centers in the game and look at their first-year production you can pick up a common theme.
Bo Horvat of the Vancouver Canucks was a ninth overall pick in 2013 and he was a 0.46 points per game player in his first two seasons. The following two seasons he began to adjust and was a 0.66 points per game player.
Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele was the seventh overall pick in 2011 and like Horvat, he took some time to acclimate to the NHL. He scored at 0.57 points per game in his first two years. The next three Scheifele turned into a star scoring at 0.97 points per game over that stretch.
The final example I’ll give is 2013 sixth-overall pick Sean Monahan of the Calgary Flames. In his first season, the Canadian-born center scored 34 points in 75 games. Every season thereafter he’s scored at least 55 points.
The main point here is that setting proper expectations will go a long way in judging Mittelstadt this season. If you’re expecting a 50 point season right out of the gate, while it’s possible, you’re likely going to be disappointed.
There’s going to be highs and lows this season. That’s part of having a young and developing hockey team. Don’t let the early struggles distract you from the long-term high-end potential of Mittelstadt and the rest of the revamped roster.