Earlier in the season, if someone had told me Casey Mittelstadt would be the top-line center when the season is on the line, I would have laughed in their face. Head coach Don Granato has shown a particular trust in Mittelstadt all year and placed him in the top-six when injuries occurred to players like Tage Thompson, Alex Tuch, or Jeff Skinner, and it has paid off each time. Despite early season issues, Mittelstadt has come to prove that he can be productive in the right situations. The problem is that it brings into question how much he is worth, and what the Buffalo Sabres should do with him.
It is impossible to be inside the general manager or coach’s heads to know exactly what they think of a player, but based on how that player is used, it can be fairly simple to guess. Mittelstadt might have been deployed mostly in a third-line role for most of the season, but he appears to have Granato’s trust in most high-pressure situations. That might be enough to keep him around for longer than this season and to give him an extension that is worth more than anticipated.
Mittelstadt’s Playmaking a Major Factor
For the majority of the year, Mittelstadt has split center time with Tyson Jost as a part of the third line with Victor Olofsson. The three of them had some solid success as a line by balancing playmaking, defensive effort, and finishing ability. Mittelstadt functioned as the setup man and showed great promise with his ability to create scoring chances. His issue was in his finishing ability, but that is what Olofsson and Jost were there for. He had two stretches of 17 games between goals, but in those same spans of time, he was still putting up a decent number of assists.
Since he took over for Thompson on the top line (initially due to injury), he has been on fire with his playmaking while still chipping in a few goals (nine games played, two goals, nine assists). Centering a line with Skinner and Tuch will have its benefits, and he is reaping the rewards. Since Thompson has come back, Mittelstadt has managed to keep his spot between them and continues to thrive in that position. He currently sits with a total of 53 points and has managed 41 assists, both of which are career highs. Should he continue to play at such a high level down this final stretch of games, he could easily eclipse the 55-point mark.
Mittelstadt Not Making the Same Mistakes
Earlier in the season, there was a bit of an issue with the effort level that Mittelstadt was showing. He lumbered around the ice and floated about without much of a work ethic, but as the season has gone on, he has shown some solid improvement in that area. He now hustles back in the defensive zone, and he has clearly worked on his skating to improve his speed as he can keep up with some of the better players in the NHL. He still has some work to do with his defensive awareness, but as he continues to play the center role again, Granato will drill that into him more.
Another huge improvement in his game has been his selflessness. In previous years, Mittelstadt tried to be a one-man show and make things happen on his own, but this season he has shown that he can play on a line as part of it and not just the only one on it. This has boosted his playmaking numbers dramatically since he learned to use his teammates’ strengths to his advantage. Regardless of if he played with Jost and Olofsson or Skinner and Tuch, he has grown his game to a point where he can have a big playmaking role and not worry about scoring on his own. He has some of the softest hands on the team, and it is fantastic to see how far he has come in developing his skills and leaving bad habits behind.
Mittelstadt’s Worth and Future in Buffalo
This is the real dilemma of the situation. With Mittelstadt reaching the 50-point mark, he has shown that he is capable of being in the top-six and that he deserves to be paid in a similar way. He currently has one more season on his contract at a $2.5-million cap hit, so the Sabres could still hold onto him if they believe he is part of their core and extend him before the July 1 deadline. With how much Granato seems to like him and use him, signs do not point to his departure. He will likely get a fairly decent contract depending on next season’s performance, but he will not be the only young player on the docket for a new deal. There are a number of players who will be looking for new contracts after next season, so that may complicate things for Kevyn Adams as he already has handed out big contracts to Dylan Cozens and Thompson.
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Adams has a deep pipeline of young talented centers in Matt Savoie, Jiri Kulich, Noah Ostlund, and Tyson Kozak to name a few, so one of them may still push Mittelstadt out of town for financial reasons alone. Due to this, it is still possible that Mittelstadt gets moved, and it would be a solid return package if Adams went this route. Trading him for a player to strengthen their roster for a playoff run makes logical sense if the plan is to bring up one or more of the kids next season. Nothing against Mittelstadt or his now-developed abilities, but beyond next year it will be difficult to keep him in town. The Sabres’ best course of action would be to trade him at this year’s draft while his value is at its peak, so they can use the assets gained to make a stronger playoff push in 2023-24.