Casey Mittelstadt’s offensive production (or lack thereof) has been a major topic of conversation among Sabres fans as the team continues to search for an answer to their secondary scoring woes. As a player who came into the season with significant expectations as the future second-line center in Buffalo, he has struggled to make an impact, posting just 12 points in 43 games thus far. Prior to scoring against the New Jersey Devils last night, he had only produced one goal in his last 19 games.
The situation has a lot of moving parts. At the risk of preaching a rhetoric based on revisionist history, it is now abundantly clear that the Sabres plan for Mittelstadt was flawed from the start. After dealing Ryan O’Reilly (a topic that has been beaten to a pulp), investing in Patrik Berglund as a short-term at center while Mittelstadt acclimated to NHL action was a plan that failed spectacularly.
So now what? Unless the Sabres have an applied sciences division that is close to a breakthrough with their time machine prototype, it’s up to the organization to adapt and set the 20-year-old up to experience success in the second half of the season. Fans have floated countless ideas that have ranged from switching him to the wing, to sending him down to Rochester. The question now becomes, which course of action makes the most sense for both his short-term and long-term success?
Let’s start by eliminating the proposed AHL solution. Not only is it highly unlikely that Jason Botterill would pursue that avenue, it also weakens what is already a shallow center spine in Buffalo. A shift to the wing is perhaps more likely, but still not the most optimal adjustment, at least not right away.
There is some intrigue to potentially placing Sam Reinhart back at center in order to allow Mittelstadt to play on the wing, but that experiment seems to be over. If Housley isn’t keen shifting his top right-winger down the middle, playing him on the wing could result in someone like Vladimir Sobotka centering the second line, a thought that should make everyone cringe into oblivion.
Simply put, Phil Housley cannot keep trotting him out there with linemates who have also hit an offensive brick wall. The most obvious solution would be to split up the top line (a proposal that Ryan Wolfe addressed in his article yesterday) and see what Mittelstadt can do with extended ice time beside more talented wingers. Ideally, Housley would experiment by putting Skinner on his left side and perhaps Jason Pominville on his right, two players with whom he’s posted impressive Corsi-For metrics this season (marks of 50.43 and 60.49, respectively).
Shuffling the likes of Tage Thompson, Remi Elie and Kyle Okposo (three men with whom he’s posted abysmal Corsi numbers) as his linemates is the least optimal outcome. Should his struggles continue alongside superior wingers, then perhaps a temporary switch to the wing is the answer, but Housley would be remiss to make that change without first allowing Mittelstadt to center more talented players. Either way, something has to give. If the Sabres hope to maintain their standing in the Eastern Conference playoff race this season, they need to see increased production from the former eighth-overall pick.
Now, despite the fact that he isn’t being optimized, this isn’t meant to absolve Mittelstadt of all blame. He needs to be stronger on the puck and improve his zone-entry technique, for starters. Giving him time with consistent veterans will go a long way in helping him overcome those issues without the added burden of having to carry a line before he’s ready.
As many have already concluded, Jack Eichel’s injury may actually be what ends up inspiring Housley to break up the top line and try to distribute his talent more evenly. Hopefully that’s the case and we see what Mittelstadt is capable of with a player (or two) who can help him drive possession. Sticking a developing young center with unproductive wingers is a historically unsuccessful tactic that the Sabres need to abandon immediately.
Corsi stats courtesy of NaturalStatTrick