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Mittelstadt remains a work in progress

CLINTON -- What's wrong with Casey Mittelstadt? Nothing really.

He's 19. He's played six NHL games. Less than two years ago, he was still in high school. He's supposed to still be on his deep learning curve.

So when do you start to worry? Is it even valid to worry about such a player, one drafted No. 8 overall?

Expectations soared over the summer after Ryan O'Reilly was traded to St. Louis, instantly anointing Mittelstadt as the Buffalo Sabres' No. 2 center on depth charts everywhere. In hindsight, that was unfairly premature.

Mittelstadt had no points in the first eight periods of the Prospects Challenge and has no points in his three preseason appearances. He was blanked again in Tuesday's 4-2 loss to Columbus and the notion that Mittelstadt would start the season as the No. 2 man in the middle already seems to be flimsy.

It's far more likely that the lineup used here Tuesday will be what we see on opening night, with Jack Eichel in the top slot and newly acquired veteran Patrik Berglund as No. 2 to give the Sabres a strong two-way player and the kind of faceoff option they need to replace the departed Ryan O'Reilly.

It's easy to forget Mittelstadt is just 18 months removed from high school hockey in Eden Prairie, Minn. The tiny Clinton Arena was reminiscent of many rinks in Minnesota, and Mittelstadt apparently took some needling in the Sabres' broom closet of a dressing room when he pointed that out before the game.

"The guys were making fun of me for saying it felt like high school," Mittelstadt said after a morning skate attended by about 1,200 fans that included a few hundred school children. "It was obviously cool to see all the fans and things like that."

As for the game, Mittelstadt was certainly better than he was in the Sabres' home-and-home series against Toronto. His struggles defensively Friday in Scotiabank Arena prompted coach Phil Housley to drop him a line, and he centered Kyle Okposo and C.J. Smith here Tuesday.

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Mittelstadt and Okposo had one first-period sequence where they dominated the puck on the cycle in the Columbus zone, and Mittelstadt had a much stronger two-way game overall.

"He was very strong and he was explosive tonight," Housley said. "And I really liked Kyle Okposo's game too. He had guys on his back. That whole line was pretty good."

Holding his position is key for Mittelstadt. When he gets scattered in the defensive zone is when he finds trouble.

"Playing high school I think you can kind of follow the puck around and get away with it -- more than get away with it actually," he said. "For me, there's things to learn and I've always caught on pretty quick and it should be the same way here."

"His defensive zone is the one thing I'm worried about," Housley said. "He's got great skill and speed in the way he attacks the game. Just his defensive reads, make sure he clamps down in that zone."

The one tough lesson for a young player to understand is that some shifts will be a wash. When nothing is happening, you can't force the action. You simply get off the ice, return to the bench and start preparing for the next one.

"For me, that's probably one of the biggest things I've had to learn," Mittelstadt said. "Playing high school, there's always something you can do and a play you can make. Obviously at this level, there's not and you've got to learn that you're not going to be able to be perfect and do something every shift. With every game, every practice, I continue learning."

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