Casey Mittelstadt’s rookie season in Buffalo has been under the microscope from day one. Early on, fans were cautiously optimistic about his ability to transition to the NHL from the collegiate ranks, and assume a role as the Sabres’ second-line center. As he struggled to make it onto the score sheet early on, spectators began to lament both his seemingly hasty promotion, and the absence of his predecessor, Ryan O’Reilly.
In retrospect, the best move would perhaps have been to let the 20-year-old centerman spend a year with the Rochester Amerks. Regardless of whether or not you feel that he should have started the 2018-19 campaign in the AHL, there’s a lot to be encouraged by considering how he’s progressed to this point.
A popular narrative lies in the perception that the Sabres’ roster wasn’t deep or talented enough to accommodate an ideal environment for Mittelstadt’s development, and there’s certainly merit to that argument. Buffalo has very little in terms of forward depth, and first-year centers aren’t exactly notorious for succeeding with inferior linemates.
All of that being said, unsurprisingly, the coaching staff has done him no favors. First, let’s examine Mittelstadt’s deployment. Through 66 games, he holds an offensive zone-start percentage of 80.37 according to NaturalStatTrick. Only Conor Sheary (82.85-percent) holds a higher ratio this season. He’s also ninth among Sabres forwards in average ice-time, which means that they’re not burying him with an overly-difficult workload.
Great, right? It would appear that the coaching staff is placing him in a position to succeed offensively while managing his overall responsibilities. Not so fast.
In reviewing the wingers with whom Mittelstadt spends the most time, a glaring issue exists, and could help explain why he’s been held back, to an extent, offensively. His most frequent wingman is Sheary. As a duo, they make a pretty good team. Together, they hold a Corsi-for of 51.80 and both have suffered notably without the other, so Phil Housley’s decision to have them spend the most time together (375:12, to be exact) is well reasoned.
The problem lies with the their most frequent linemate manning the right side, Kyle Okposo. Yes, the same Kyle Okposo that has posted positive Corsi marks with exactly one other forward this season (Evan Rodrigues).
Mittelstadt has spent nearly as much time beside Okposo (319:04) as he has with Sheary. Alongside the 30-year-old winger, his Corsi-for plummets down to 44.89 on the year. Only one other player (with whom he’s skated for more than 50 minutes) has dragged down his Corsi stats more, and that’s Tage Thompson.
Guess who Mittelstadt’s second-most frequent right-winger is this season. That’s right, it’s Thompson.
Now, most of us are aware of the fact that Housley stubbornly continues to roll with a “mega-line” of Jeff Skinner, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart at the top of the lineup. Even if you ignore the fact that it’s completely foolish not to allow Reinhart to help catalyze his own line, there is still an alternative to Thompson and Okposo on Mittelstadt’s right side.
Enter, Jason Pominville. In 80 minutes together this season, he and Mittelstadt have accounted for a Corsi-for of 56.33. That’s not a very heavy sample-size, but shouldn’t that be enough to inspire Housley to at least try a line of Sheary-Mittelstadt-Pominville, especially if he insists on keeping Reinhart on the top line? Sadly, that trio has spent a whopping 20:34 together this season.
So, not only has the organization placed Mittelstadt into a top-six role that he probably wasn’t ready for, but they’ve saddled him with a pair of offensive voids in Okposo and Thompson for a vast majority of the season. This certainly doesn’t help quell the narrative that Housley is utterly tone-deaf when it comes to lineup optimization. The offensive zone-starts and other underlying factors are washed-out to an extent when you consider the fact that Housley has essentially deployed two-thirds of a competent second line all year (a decision for which there were, and continue to be, viable alternatives).
Perhaps pointing to the Sabres’ lack of depth at wing is a misguided endeavor. The data shows us that there has always been an alternative to the perpetually ineffective winger combinations that Housley has rolled out on the second line. Don’t expect the second-year head coach to recognize that fact, however. His answer is apparently to separate Mittelstadt from Sheary and instead place offensive powerhouse, Scott Wilson on his left side. At least Housley was intelligent enough to put Sheary with Rodrigues (a duo that holds a Corsi-for of 56.01 this season) so that’s... something.
Now let’s get to the good news. Despite the sub-optimal right-wingers he’s dealt with this season, Mittelstadt’s numbers are trending up as we approach the final stretch of games. His rolling expected-goals average continues to climb as he has increasingly done a much better job of getting himself into high-danger areas (something he wasn’t doing with the same frequency earlier in the season).
He’s also doing a better job of reducing his average shot-distance. This development has translated into a modest uptick in point production as well. Over the last 12 games, he has registered six points. Far from earth-shattering, but well above his season average.
If he can close-out the year at that pace, it will help fortify the theory that he’s making marked progress despite somewhat pedestrian base statistics that have been dragged down by back-to-back point droughts (five and seven games, respectively) that took place in December (that’s the massive dip you’ll find on the xG chart above).
Long story short, despite what some believe, in the time that Mittelstadt has spent with linemates that aren’t completely useless, he’s actually done quite well. What’s even more encouraging is the progress he seems to be making despite still being saddled with less-than optimal wingmen. That fact alone should be enough to inspire optimism that the Sabres’ seemingly short-sighted developmental track (in this case) hasn’t derailed his growth. If Jason Botterill can adequately address the team’s depth on the wing this offseason, perhaps we’ll see the Minnesota product soar to new heights in 2019-20.