Travis Yost has been involved in the world of hockey analytics for a decade and is currently part of TSN's Hockey Analytics team. Prior to joining TSN, Travis was a contributor at the Ottawa Citizen, the Sporting News and NHL Numbers, and has been a consultant for an NHL franchise. He will be contributing breakdowns on the Sabres for The Buffalo News this season. Follow Travis on Twitter: @travisyost.
Like it or not, the Buffalo Sabres need more from Casey Mittelstadt.
Mittelstadt, a 20-year old and 2017 first-round pick, has been pushed into a reasonably important role by coach Phil Housley. Part of that are the high expectations levied upon any first-round pick and his associated draft pedigree.
Another part of that is the reality that this is still a quasi-rebuilding Buffalo team – better than most imagined in 2018-19, but still sorely lacking depth in critical areas of the roster.
Mittelstadt is playing a little more than 11 minutes a night at 5-on-5 and a little more than 13 minutes a night across all situations, which puts him squarely in third-line territory. It’s a good spot for a developing player – he gets a fairly sizable allocation of shifts each night, and does so against relatively weaker competition thanks to the insulation from the Jack Eichel line.
Minutes allocation at the halfway point are itemized in the chart here.
It’s pretty obvious how reliant Buffalo has been on their top three or four players. That’s partially because of how good they have been for much of the season, but partially because of how middling Buffalo has performed with them off of the ice.
That’s particularly true at 5-on-5. If you look at some of the underlying individual and on-ice measures through the first half of the season, you can quickly get a feel for how top-heavy this team has become. Because we are focusing on Buffalo’s core forward group, let’s take into a consideration a few variables.
First, let’s consider how well Buffalo is winning the shot volume battle (Corsi percent) with each Buffalo forward on the ice. Then we’ll do the same, but from a goal percent perspective. Lastly, we will look at a player’s individual production – how many points he is accumulating on a per-60 minute basis.
What does that look like for this Sabres team?
Four forwards are driving most of Buffalo’s success – Jeff Skinner, Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Jason Pominville. Outside of that core four, the rest of Buffalo skaters are either being outshot, outscored, or a combination of the two.
Mittelstadt’s on-ice numbers aren’t great. Buffalo was getting 45 percent of the shots with him on the ice and 48 percent of the goals, entering Monday night's game. So whichever way you prefer to measure on-ice success, it’s reasonably clear that Buffalo is weaker than the average team with Mittelstadt on the ice.
The bigger issue for him right now, though, is that even when the Sabres do score with him out there, he’s infrequently involved in the scoring sequence. You’ll notice Mittelstadt’s bubble size is painfully small, and that’s because he’s only managing to score 0.8 points per-60 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey. Not only is that ninth among Buffalo skaters (and behind names such as Tage Thompson and Zemgus Girgensons), it’s only in the eighth percentile leaguewide.
And statistically speaking, he isn’t comparing very favorably to other 20-year-olds around the league. If we just take these three simple measures and compare them head-to-head with other players of identical age, you can see that his performance here has been generally underwhelming (though, it should be noted, that things like quality of teammate and general playing environment aren’t explicitly controlled for here):
It’s not reasonable to saddle Mittelstadt with all the burden that the bottom-six (or even bottom-nine) in Buffalo are carrying right now. He is still very early in the development stages and Buffalo just doesn’t have the teammate quality yet to supplement him with the skilled wingers he probably needs. But Buffalo’s 2018-19 reality has changed from one just looking for marginal improvement at the start of the year to a team with legitimate playoff aspirations.
Mittelstadt figures to be a big part of that. But, at least right now, it’s been an uphill climb for him.