Casey Mittelstadt’s first full season in the NHL wasn’t one that fans or I’m sure even he was hoping for. There were a lot of high and lows throughout. That’s not uncommon for a 19-year-old in their first professional season, but the high expectations didn’t help with the final results.
After trading Ryan O’Reilly in the offseason, Mittelstadt was expected to pick up some of the slack offensively at center. The plan early in the season was to probably shelter him behind newly acquired Patrik Berglund. After his unexpected departure from the team, the 2017 first-round pick was thrust into that second line center role he wasn’t ready for.
There were times where Mittelstadt showed flashes of that top end talent and others where he struggled against the superior competition. He ended up scoring 12 goals and 25 points in 77 games as a rookie. Those numbers are not bad when all things are considered. Those production levels are similar to Sean Couturier (13-14-27) and Alex Galchenyuk (13-18-31) in their first full NHL seasons.
Where it differentiates between the three is the on-ice impacts. Mittelstadt was a negative offensively and defensively at both ends of the ice in Evolving Hockey’s RAPM model. Where Galchenyuk was a positive offensive player and Couturier was very strong defensively.
The Sabres didn’t give Mittelstadt a lot of help in succeeding during his first season. As I mentioned previously, the situation they put him in with how the roster was constructed, put unfair expectations on his shoulders. He came in with a lot of hype as an elite prospect, but expecting a 40 to 50 point season is a lot for a player that was playing at the high school level just two years ago.
Along with that, his head coach didn’t give him the best linemates consistently to find success. According to Evolving Hockey, his top three most common linemates at 5 on 5 were Conor Sheary (48%), Kyle Okposo (37%), and Tage Thompson (21%). While Sheary worked well with Mittelstadt, the other two did not. Both Okposo and Thompson were two of the worst impact offensive forwards in the NHL last season. They were also in the top five worst total expected goals plus-minus per 60 minutes on the team in Evolving Hockey’s RAPM metrics.
Mittelstadt saw his best possession numbers and offensive output with three players that were on his wing less than 17 percent of the time last season. Those three players were Sam Reinhart, Jason Pominville, and Evan Rodrigues. All three of those players were some of the better impact players on the roster last season. Yet, Phil Housley refused to consistently put any of them with his young center.
The chart below using data from Natural Stat Trick and Evolving Hockey lays out the expected goals and Corsi per 60 percentage of Mittelstadt with each of the aforementioned wingers. The size of the bubble signifies time on ice together.
Sean Tierney’s line viz using Moneypuck’s data also gives a visual on how Mittelstadt’s best linemates were ones he played with the least. I added the line with Sheary and Pominville to the chart since they played under 50 minutes and didn’t show up on Sean’s original viz.
It wasn’t just at even strength where Mittelstadt may have not been utilized properly. Playing on the man advantage was one of the areas where he excelled. However, at times he found himself getting very few minutes on the second unit or off the power play altogether. He was ranked seventh on the team in power play time on ice but was ranked third in individual expected goals with the man advantage.
Another interesting part of Mittelstadt’s power play deployment was that they didn’t play him on the left side of the formation where he found the most success. Playing that spot on the half wall allows him to utilize his shot and his vision to set up his teammates.
He looks more comfortable on that side of the formation getting off his shot and attacking the net. It was something that he was successful doing at the University of Minnesota as well prior to joining the Sabres.
Mittelstadt is also one of the best players at gaining the offensive zone with possession on the power play. In Corey Sznajder’s tracking data he was third on the team in carry in percentage (76.5%) behind Jack Eichel and Sheary. He was ranked first on the team in setup percentage (64.7%).
Next season he needs to get a consistent and prominent role on the power play. It’ll help him become a more impactful player on the roster and his overall production level as well.
Mittelstadt wasn’t only effective in zone entries on the power play, but it was one of his strengths at 5 on 5. Throughout the season he showed the ability to create offense on the rush with his speed. He had the highest carry-in percentage of any forward on the team this season.
The clip below is a great example of how Mittelstadt can gain the zone and draw the defense to him. Thus allowing his teammates to find the open spots on the ice for scoring chances.
The Minnesota-born forward seems to best fit with players that can play with pace and are good at attacking on the rush. Sheary, Reinhart, and Rodrigues are three players that will be back next season that would fit that role.
I recently wrote about Joonas Donskoi as a free agent option for the Sabres. He also seems like a solid fit for Mittelstadt’s wing. Not only will he contribute offensively, but will help Mittelstadt defensively.
One area he can improve his offensive prowess is by attacking the net with his shot more often. At times last season, Mittelstadt would over-pass the puck and lose a scoring opportunity. That could be something that comes with more confidence and experience.
When he did use his shot he was successful in finding the back of the net via his initial shot or the scramble that resulted from the rebound. Mittelstadt shoots from quality scoring areas and score at a decent rate.
He scored 12 goals this season on an 11.53 expected goal rating and his shooting percentage was above the league average at 10.2 percent. Next season is an important one for Mittelstadt to show growth and give the club confidence that he can be a top-six center moving forward. He needs to be surrounded by talent that can play the style of hockey that best fits his skill set.
It’ll be interesting to see how Ralph Krueger plans to utilize the 20-year-old next season. Mittelstadt is still a dynamic young player for the Sabres that they need to set up in a better situation next season.