NASHVILLE – A little more than nine months ago, Casey Mittelstadt was a wide-eyed 18-year-old getting shown the red carpet by the NHL in advance of the draft. He was on the top prospects' annual trip to Game Four of the Stanley Cup final and it landed him in the Music City.
Predators-Penguins. The roars inside Bridgestone Arena. The thousands mobbing Broadway outside. He took it all in -- and got to meet some hockey royalty, too.
So Mittelstadt was more than a little struck by the irony of being back here Saturday for his second NHL game with the Buffalo Sabres meeting the Predators. Following the morning skate, he returned to the same locker room where he met Sidney Crosby and where the Penguins enjoyed their champagne celebration after winning the Cup six nights later in Game Six.
"It's pretty cool for me to be here now and get a chance to play here," Mittelstadt said. "I got to see the atmosphere here last year in a playoff game and I know a Saturday night will be pretty crazy but it will be fun."
Mittelstadt joined the eventual 1-2 choices in the draft, New Jersey's Nico Hischier and Philadelphia's Nolan Patrick, and No. 11 Gabe Vilardi of Los Angeles on the tour for the top four North American skaters. It's an annual rite for some of the prospects to attend the morning skate, meet players, speak to the media and make appearances with NBC and the NHL Network.
They even got to meet Wayne Gretzky, in town for a press conference to honor the 1984-85 Edmonton Oilers as the NHL's all-time team, and NBA legend Charles Barkley, who was invited by friend and NBC analyst Jeremy Roenick and crashed Gretzky's meeting with the media.
The most bizarre meet and greet, however, was the time-honored tradition of taping a segment of "Coach's Corner" with legendary CBC wisecracker Don Cherry.
"That was interesting obviously," a smiling Mittelstadt said. "He was pretty funny. I've seen a lot of him through Twitter and stuff. He's a very interesting guy, a good character for the game."
The players came directly from the Draft Combine in Buffalo to Nashville, where they had a steak dinner and took in the Broadway scene on a Sunday night. They then watched the Predators' 4-1 victory in Game Four the next night even the series.
The morning of the game they were escorted into both locker rooms, meeting players such as Predators defensemen P.K. Subban and Roman Josi and Penguins stars Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Mittelstadt's reaction Saturday was similar to the one Jack Eichel had three years ago; he met Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos during the 2015 Cup final in Chicago and was playing against Stamkos and the Lightning for the Sabres a scant four months later during the second game of his career.
"So much has happened that in some ways it feels like a while ago but it was such a fun thing," Mittelstadt said. "You get to come to a Cup game and see how crazy the fans are. You hear about that on TV no matter where it is but it was amazing to see here. You don't really understand it until you see it in person."
Mittelstadt said he was looking forward to being on the ice and in the middle of the atmosphere he saw from the stands last June. But more important, he was happy to start to settle in with the Sabres with the hype of his first career game now complete.
"I'm pretty big into routine so for me that's pretty important to get into one," he said. "You take the first game to figure out how everything works with morning skate and everything like that. But I'm getting settled into a routine now and it's pretty nice."
Mittelstadt opened the game centering Evan Rodrigues and Kyle Okposo. As for this year's Predators, he was quickly able to hone in on his keys to success.
"They have four of the best D in the league back there so it will be a good test for us and for myself," Mittelstadt said, referring to Nashville stalwarts Subban, Josi, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis. "They all play fast. They're all able to jump in the rush but at the same time they're all very responsible defensively. They do a lot of good things back there."
"It's going to be a great challenge because he's going to be facing some really good centermen too," coach Phil Housley said. "It's part of his growth to experience what really, really good teams do and how they play. It's probably going to be eye-popping for him."
The Sabres scratched winger Jordan Nolan and defenseman Nathan Beaulieu. Injured goalies Robin Lehner and Linus Ullmark did not make the trip. Adam Wilcox backed up Chad Johnson, and dressed for a regular-season game for the first time as a Sabre.