EDMONTON – Sometimes failure is the only way to learn. Casey Mittelstadt has come to terms with that harsh reality during his rookie season with the Buffalo Sabres.
The 20-year-old center no longer is the best player on his team, and the NHL transition is arguably most difficult for young players at his position. His defensive struggles led coach Phil Housley to briefly bump him down to the fourth line.
Mittelstadt's play has since improved – he centered the second line Monday night against the Edmonton Oilers in Rogers Place – and his teammates say they have seen him make progress since opening night.
Mittelstadt was hoping for more, though.
"Patience is probably the thing I’ve learned most this year," Mittelstadt said following Monday's morning skate. "I’m pretty hard on myself and I always expect to have results right away. Maybe they haven’t come yet, but I’ve learned a lot of patience."
Though Mittelstadt was playing at the University of Minnesota this time one year ago, there were immense expectations for him entering Sabres training camp. He is a dynamic, play-making center who could take pressure off Jack Eichel's line and solidify the position after Ryan O'Reilly was traded to St. Louis.
Mittelstadt's season has not gone as planned. Entering Monday, he had six goals with six assists and a minus-6 rating – tied for third-worst among Sabres forwards – in 45 games. His ice time has dipped recently, including an eight-minute, 48-second game against Florida on Jan. 3, despite Eichel being out with an upper-body injury. Mittelstadt's 13 minutes, 12 seconds per game is the third-lowest ice time on the team.
He was the last Sabres center to play with the top line when Eichel missed three-plus games from Dec. 31 to Jan. 5.
"It’s different for me," Mittelstadt said. "I’ve always been kind of the top guy on the team who you look at. Obviously, I’m not this year, which is completely fine. It’s something I have to learn and being patient is important. It’s a little different, but finding rhythm in other ways is important. If you have a good shift, focus on the little things you did."
Mittelstadt was on the fourth line and had played less than six minutes through two periods when Housley finally called on him to center the top line for the final 20 minutes of a 2-1 loss in Boston on Jan. 5.
Though the change did not yield a goal from the line, Mittelstadt's Corsi For percentage – which measures shot differential when a player is on the ice – was 41.7 percent in the third period with five shot attempts for and seven against.
Mittelstadt posted a 50.9 Corsi For percentage over the next three games, and he scored a highlight-reel goal in a 5-1 win over the New Jersey Devils on Jan. 8.
"The biggest thing for him is probably getting comfortable out there," winger Conor Sheary, Mittelstadt's linemate for much of the season, said. "I’m sure he has a ton of confidence coming out of college, being a high pick and sometimes it can be humbling to come to the NHL and see how good the players are. I think he’s battled through it. As of late, the last five or 10 games, he’s really finding himself."
Patience is particularly important away from KeyBank Center. Housley can protect Mittelstadt against difficult matchups at home because the Sabres receive the last line change, but opponents often use their top forwards against Mittelstadt on the road.
In the defensive zone, centers must act as a third defenseman by handling the third attacking forward and must support their own defensemen by covering the slot. They also have to look for loose pucks, attack forwards trying to advance to high-percentage scoring areas and maintain position to start a breakout. All while facing the best players in the NHL, like the Oilers' Connor McDavid.
It's no small task for a young player who is also expected to score like a second-line forward.
"I think I’ve gotten better each game," Mittelstadt said. "Sometimes it’s going to be tough and you’re going to make mistakes, but for me I always feel better about myself if I make mistakes when I’m being aggressive and pushing out on guys. ... I’m more comfortable playing against top guys. Obviously we have to start scoring some goals a little bit and start helping out the first line."
With the puck, Mittelstadt has made veterans look silly at times. He has stick-handled around opponents to win one-on-one matchups and is beginning to take the puck to the net, which has earn Housley's trust over the past week.
Mittelstadt, like most Sabres players, is not shooting enough. Entering Monday, he had a negative-66 5-on-5 shot-attempt differential – also third-worst among Sabres forwards – this season and six shots on goal in his previous five games combined, including zero in the 4-3 loss to Carolina on Friday,
"I like the way he attacks the game offensively when he has time and space, and he’s got to continue to do that," Housley said of Mittelstadt. "We’re trying to harp on him to shoot the puck more because you look at the goals he’s scored, he’s got a very good release. We’re going to try to keep putting that in his head to just shoot the puck."