Mike Harrington: With lots of needs on all sides, Sabres stay down the middle - The Buffalo News

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Mike Harrington: With lots of needs on all sides, Sabres stay down the middle

CHICAGO -- The first thing to know about Casey Mittelstadt is there was little expectation he would ever be around by the time the Buffalo Sabres made the No. 8 pick Friday. Jason Botterill laughed it off as one of those classic draft cliches, but this time there's actual proof of it.

When the NHL chose prospects to make the annual pilgrimage to Game Four of the Stanley Cup final, Mittelstadt was there along with top two picks Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick. They mugged for the cameras with Charles Barkley, then posed formally in a group shot with Gary Bettman, Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey. They met Sidney Crosby and Matt Murray outside the Pittsburgh dressing room and did the traditional "Coach's Corner" segment with Don Cherry as well.

The group was awed by the fervor of Nashville's Bridgestone Arena and thrilled by the sight of the Predators' series-tying 4-1 win over the Penguins.

"My feet were getting all blistered up from standing the whole game," Mittelstadt said in United Center, dressed in his new blue Sabres sweater and official draft cap. "How good the hockey was and how well constructed the teams were at that time of the year really stood out for me too."

It was more of the same this week. Patrick threw a first pitch Wednesday at Wrigley Field with Vilardi and Mittelstadt also on hand -- although the Cubs were less than World Series-caliber in spelling, as they gave the newest Sabre a jersey that said "Mittlestadt." He was considered a top-5 guy until the draft went a tad haywire. Maybe the bad jersey was an omen.

It left Botterill with quite a quandary for his first top pick as general manager. He could add to his team's center depth with Mittelstadt or go for more scoring on the wing with 44-goal OHL stud Owen Tippett. Perhaps a defenseman with massive NHL pedigree like Callan Foote (son of Adam Foote), or highly-touted Swedish blueliner Timothy Liljegren, whose stock was dropping after mononucleosis put a crimp into his season.

The other option was to work a deal to trade down and get something else. But on a night when few GMs in the top half of the draft seemed willing to move, Botterill stood pat.

Botterill said he tried to move up and never considered going down once Mittelstadt was still there.

From one Minnesotan to another, Mittelstadt happy to go to Sabres

So picks stayed in order, Vancouver and the New York Rangers baffled most observers by taking Swedish centers and that dropped some North Americans down. Buffalo ended up with Mittelstadt, a University of Minnesota commit who is going to college in the fall. Yes, the Sabres need defense and goaltending but that's what Saturday can be about.

To Botterill, when you're in the top 10, you're taking the best player.

"If there's a fit, we'll make that selection for a defenseman or a goaltender but we're not going to force it," he said. "... If there's another good center man tomorrow in our early picks, we're probably going to select him. if it's close, then we'll probably lean toward a defensemen."

There's quite the symmetry to this pick. A Minnesota high schooler goes No. 1 to the Sabres in their first draft with Phil Housley, another former Minnesota high school star, as coach. In fact, it was Buffalo's first selection of a high schooler in the opening round since Tom Barrasso in 1983.

It was a quiet end to what began as a volatile day.

Botterill met reporters in the morning and grimly confirmed that Notre Dame goalie Cal Petersen is heading to free agency and not signing with the Sabres. Evander Kane, subject of growing trade rumors, had people reading tea leaves with his emoji tweets of raised eyes and then an ear.

"I do not read Evander's Twitter," Botterill said when asked if he had seen them following the first round. "Did we have some good stuff today?"

We did. It was a light moment the new GM probably needed. There was the Petersen news. Buffalo was hoping to add former Islanders head coach Jack Capuano to its staff but he signed Friday as the associate head man in Florida. The Sabres lost William Carrier in expansion and are still carrying the bloated contracts of Zach Bogosian, Matt Moulson and Josh Gorges.

There was upheaval in Chicago with the Blackhawks trading Nicklas Hjalmarsson to Arizona and then pulling the stunner of the day by shipping Artemi Panarin to Columbus to re-acquire Brandon Saad. The Coyotes let Shane Doan go last weekend, parted ways with coach Dave Tippett on Thursday -- one day before the first round? -- but they got Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta from the Rangers.

During the first round, St. Louis was the big mover by getting Brayden Schenn from Philadelphia for Jori Lehtera and shipping rugged Ryan Reaves to Pittsburgh. The Blues got picks and Sidney Crosby gets a bodyguard.

Meanwhile, Botterill said he's still in deep with the trade market. Just nothing yet.

"I think my phone has sort of been glued to my ear here for six weeks," he said.

As for those worried about Mittelstadt pulling a Petersen or Jimmy Vesey mood down the road, I say don't. The bet here is he's going to play two years for Minnesota, perhaps even just one. Botterill loves college players, saying Friday that he "loved the college model." But as teams are finding out in the cases of Vesey and Petersen, you better get your guys signed quick. It's not good for college hockey and it's a loophole in the CBA that needs to be closed. But it's how the game is played for now.

The Sabres traded for Vesey's rights last year and couldn't sign him. They drafted Petersen in 2013, he's attended multiple summer development camps and they couldn't sign him either. No way they should even let Mittelstadt get to his junior year.

They have a lot of work to do still. Mittelstadt was a bonus. Saturday needs to be spent on defensemen and a goaltender. Talent overrode needs in round one and Botterill can justify it. He has to fill needs the rest of the way.

Sabres Notebook: Botterill, Housley interviewing; GM talks Kane

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