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World Juniors: Sabres No. 1 pick Casey Mittelstadt comes to Buffalo to lead Team USA

His hands. It's the first thing anyone mentions when talking about Casey Mittelstadt. The kid has great hands, "sick mitts" as the hockey lingo goes.

Yes, Mittelstadt can make opponents look silly with how quickly and how softly he moves the puck, how agile he is in making plays over space and time. Combine that with strong skating and you have a player the hockey gods have blessed with offensive talent that is as effective as it is entertaining.

It's the reason why the Buffalo Sabres picked him eighth overall in the 2017 NHL entry draft. It's the reason why he will be part of the U.S. National Junior Team defending the gold medal at the World Junior Championship that begins this week in Buffalo.

Well, actually only part of the reason.

Because for as great as Mittelstadt's offensive skills are, there's so much more the 19-year-old can bring to Team USA.

"Maturity. There's no question," said Bob Motzko, head coach of the U.S. junior team. Motzko is also the head coach of St. Cloud State in Minnesota, so he's been hearing about Mittelstadt, the kid from Edina, for years.

"His hands are outstanding but his speed and his skating ability in traffic to get free is another great quality for him and he's got just a wicked release of a shot. But I think the big thing for us now being around him from this summer, there's a strong maturity about him too with everything that's been happening to him. He seems to be in a great spot."

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This is a theme when asking people about Mittelstadt – they don't just talk about his game. They talk about the person. You can't really explain one without the other, they say.

"He's not just a great hockey player, but a great person, too," said Team USA defenseman Ryan Lindgren, who plays with Mittelstadt at the University of Minnesota. "Obviously, as a hockey player, he's got some of the best hands I've ever seen. He's one of the most dynamic players I've played with.

"He's got everything. He works hard. He stays after practice and works on his game. He's never satisfied where he is. So yeah, it's a blast playing with him every day and he's a great friend as well."

What makes him such a great person? Well, for as hard as he works on the ice, for as much as he wows fans, teammates and opponents with his offensive stick work, he's just a normal college freshman away from the rink.

"He's a funny guy. He really is. He's got a great sense of humor," Lindgren said. "He's just a good guy. You'd never know he's an eighth overall draft pick. He doesn't talk about that kind of stuff. He's a very humble guy. He fits in with everyone. Coming to the University of Minnesota as a freshman, some guys may think he might be arrogant or cocky but no one thinks bad of him. He's just such a great guy and I really can't say enough about him."

Casey Mittelstadt is a freshman at the University of Minnesota (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Mittelstadt's numbers also say plenty about the kid who is just 19 collegiate games removed from his high school career. With 17 points for Minnesota (five goals, 12 assists), he ranks fourth among Division I freshmen in points. It also ranks him second on the Gophers in scoring, which is good for him, but an indicator of how the usually strong Minnesota program got off to a slow first semester. The Gophers are 10-9-1 and ranked 10th in the country, but went into the semester break on a three-game losing streak with losses in five of their last six games.

Mittelstadt balances his evaluation of his first semester of college between hockey, which at times has been challenging, and life as a student-athlete, which has been as good as advertised.

"My first semester was a blast," Mittelstadt said. "Obviously, you get to do some of the fun college things and there's a lot of hockey stuff you've got to focus on. I think our team as a whole, we didn’t have our best first half. I think we have a lot of things we have to improve on. But I think we're excited to get going for the second half. It was a blast. School wasn't too hard for me or anything, so I really enjoyed it."

So with school seemingly under control, Mittelstadt has focused on developing other parts of his game. He's paid attention to the little things, the details, including faceoffs and defensive play.

"Normally wherever I go I do pretty well with the puck and I’m able to make plays, but for me it's getting better defensively, getting better without the puck," Mittelstadt said.

Ah, yes. He does seem to do well with the puck wherever he goes. A new member to the U.S. National Junior Team, Mittelstadt didn't blend in during camp. He stood out.

While he's playing center for Minnesota, Motzko has put him at both center and wing for the U.S. The position doesn't really matter for Mittelstadt, who is confident wherever he is on the ice and able to make plays with whomever is on his line.

Remember those sick mitts? One of the things they get you is offensive versatility.

"He's one of the most dynamic players in the world at his age," said USA captain Joey Anderson, who at times in camp played on a line with Mittelstadt. "He's so great at creating space and his lateral movement is phenomenal and his vision, you know it makes it easy for me to be able to go to spaces and he finds me. And then once he passes the puck he gets moving again and gets himself open and just stuff like that. Making plays and more times than not he's in the right spot, too. You don’t have to worry about him being out of position, which is really fun."

That offense, it just comes naturally to Mitteldstadt, right?

"I mean maybe," he said with a slightly uncomfortable laugh at the question. "I think that's probably what I've always been best at. I've liked having the puck and playing with the puck so that's what I really enjoy. I'm working on other things that come around that."

But he's still working on his hands, too. Always working on his hands. He doesn't just coast on his strength. It became his strength largely from the time and effort he put into improving what already seemed to come to him naturally.

"I think that's probably the thing I've worked on the most," Mittelstadt said about his hands. "A lot of the players I watch, they have really good hands and are able to beat guys one-on-one. For me, that's what sets people apart.

"As you're moving up the levels I think guys who are always the best offensively, who are big scorers or big passers, are the guys who can beat someone one-on-one. So for me, working on my hands is probably one of the most important things that I do and I'm going to keep doing it and hopefully they keep getting better and hopefully I can beat guys."

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Team USA is hoping for that, too.

So are the fans in Buffalo.

Playing the World Juniors in Buffalo is a little bit of a mixed bag for Mittelstadt. Since he was drafted in June and attended development camp in July, he's been impressed with Sabres fans. He loves their energy and enthusiasm. He hopes they bring that same passion to watching the U.S. in the World Juniors.

But at the same time, Mittelstadt is cautious. He doesn't know what to expect playing for Team USA in the city that drafted him. More importantly, he doesn't want this to be about him. He doesn't want his status as a Sabres first-round draft choice to become a distraction from the goal at hand – winning a gold medal.

"I think no matter where you play this tournament it will be a blast and having it in Buffalo is a little bit of a cherry on top," Mittelstadt said. "For me though at the same time I think it's important to block out the distractions. Make sure I'm a member of the team and it doesn't get too much about me ...

"I try to kind of block that out and I usually think if I play my game and play well, most everything handles itself. I'm just going to try and go out there, have some fun and try to make some plays."

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