TORONTO – For Jason Botterill, the excitement is in the present. Casey Mittelstadt is in Buffalo, and the Sabres' top prospect is expected to make his NHL debut Thursday in KeyBank Center.
The payoff, however, should come next season.
"Getting a handle on what National Hockey League hockey is all about right now is going to be helpful for him," Botterill said Monday in Air Canada Centre. "He could have a really good offseason and be ready to go and be a contributor next October."
The last-place Sabres desperately need contributors, which is why the GM agreed to a three-year, entry-level contact with Mittelstadt. The first season will burn off with Mittelstadt's debut (more on that below), but it should be a small price to pay if the 19-year-old learns to be an NHL player in the final six games of the season.
"We're excited to see how he handles himself here," Botterill said before the Sabres played the Toronto Maple Leafs. "The biggest thing is setting him up for success for next October."
Mittelstadt, drafted eighth overall last June, decided Sunday night to leave the University of Minnesota following a productive freshman year. He agreed to terms Monday, will have a physical and contract signing Tuesday, then practice with the Sabres on Wednesday.
Barring any unforeseen snags, the beleaguered Buffalo fan base will see Mittelstadt face the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday in KeyBank Center. He'll start at center, joining a group of middle men that includes Jack Eichel and Ryan O'Reilly.
"I'm sure he'll have some success, and he'll also have some failures," Botterill said. "What we've seen from Casey is he learns from his mistakes fairly quickly, and I think just gaining that experience in different spots will be very beneficial."
Botterill is a big proponent of prospects learning the ropes in the American Hockey League. Sending Mittelstadt to Rochester for the playoffs would have been nice, but it can't happen. He'll be ineligible after playing in the NHL, and the prospect had the leverage to request an NHL deal rather than an amateur tryout contract.
Because of Mittelstadt's birthday month (November) and a clause in the collective bargaining agreement, the first season of his deal disappears with one game rather than the typical 10 needed for a teenager.
There is good news for Buffalo. While Mittelstadt's contract will expire following the 2019-20 season, he won't be a full-fledged restricted free agent. He won't accrue a full year of experience this season, so he won't be available to receive an offer sheet. Also, with just two years of professional experience, he would be exempt from the expected 2020 expansion draft for Seattle.
But that's the long-term future. In the short term, Buffalo gets a look at its No. 1 prospect. Plus, Mittelstadt's season probably won't end when the Sabres close the schedule April 7 in Florida. USA Hockey is expected to name the center to its team for the World Championships in May in Denmark.
"That will also set him up for a lot of success in October once the NHL season starts," Botterill said.
Mittelstadt left Minnesota after finishing second on the team with 30 points in 34 games. He scored 11 times and added 19 assists while earning a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshman team.
Sabres fans have been clamoring for the Minnesota native since watching him excel during the World Juniors in Buffalo this winter. Mittelstadt was the tournament MVP after recording four goals and 11 points in seven games for the United States.
The Sabres, including Botterill and Assistant General Manager Steve Greeley, watched Mittelstadt closely on the college and international levels.
"It's been exciting watching him throughout the entire year," Botterill said. "The world juniors, going to his NCAA games, there's different areas where you get really excited about working with him, but also get a better feel for what he needs to improve on to have the successful NHL career he is looking for."
There's no doubt Mittelstadt has the speed and skill to compete in the NHL.
"You're always excited about Casey's hockey sense and his skill level," Botterill said. "Those are things that we've talked a lot about with our group here in Buffalo, improving our team speed and improving our team skill level."
Botterill also likes the teenager's competitive nature. The Sabres definitely need to improve in that regard.
"What we've really liked watching throughout the entire year is just his competitiveness in crucial situations," said Botterill, who pointed to Mittelstadt's performance during the World Juniors in front of fans focusing on his every move. "There could have been a lot of pressure on him, but he really excelled in that situation."
Like most young players, Mittelstadt will need to develop physically. The 6-foot-1, 201-pounder infamously failed to do a pull-up during the NHL Scouting Combine last year.
"He's done a lot of work in the weight room over the last 10 to 12 months," Botterill said. "He knew there certainly was a development path going back to college, but felt for his development he was ready to step to the National Hockey League and felt excited to work with our group moving forward here."
Botterill also sees defenseman Will Borgen benefiting from late-season experience in the organization. The Sabres on Sunday signed the fourth-round pick from 2015. He has an entry-level deal that starts next season and an amateur tryout with Rochester that begins now.
"Will is a real physical defenseman, great footwork," Botterill said. "Like all defensemen, there's an adjustment to pro hockey, and you have to be patient with him in that regard."
There could be more players coming. The Sabres are having discussions with college and European free agents, though one of the top players will go elsewhere. Botterill said the Sabres are out of the running for Minnesota State defenseman Daniel Brickley.
"Our staff has done a good job in trying to be involved with as many of those type of players, trying to add players we think can improve our speed level and skill level," Botterill said. "We'll see how things progress in the next couple of weeks."