Habits die hard. Or not at all. When Casey Mittelstadt was thrust out of his comfort zone by having to play left wing Saturday in Colorado, the Buffalo Sabres' 20-year-old rookie center caught himself skating in the middle of the ice a few times.
"I thought to myself, 'Yeah, I should probably get out of here,' " Mittelstadt joked following the Sabres' optional morning skate Tuesday.
The experiment was short-lived. With Jack Eichel serving a two-game suspension, Mittelstadt was back in the middle of the ice and centering the Sabres' top line Tuesday night against the Dallas Stars in KeyBank Center.
Mittelstadt could see time on the wing in the final 12 regular-season games after Eichel returns, however, his goals over the final three weeks revolve around his play in the middle of the ice.
"I think it’s important to just keep progressing," Mittelstadt added. "I’ve made good progress in areas I’ve needed to. Keep moving forward and getting better. ... I think that will put me in a good spot for next season."
Drafted eighth overall in 2017, Mittelstadt had 10 goals among 21 points with a minus-10 rating in 64 games entering Tuesday. He had one shot on goal in 11 minutes, 14 minutes during a 5-4 shootout loss in Chicago last Thursday.
Mittelstadt practiced at left wing in Denver the following day, a move coach Phil Housley said was fueled by curiosity.
The hope was a move to wing would allow Mittelstadt to use his skills to create more offensively since he would not have to worry about the additional defensive responsibilities of playing center.
It did not go as planned. Mittelstadt played only 10 minutes, 32 seconds in a 3-0 loss to the Avalanche. He was moved to Eichel's wing with the Sabres facing a two-goal deficit but finished with only one shot on goal.
"I was just trying to find a spark, something different," Housley said. "I didn’t mind the way he played. He wasn’t very involved in the play. That’s why we tried to put him up with Jack, just to try to get a spark while we were down two."
The concepts of playing wing aren't foreign to Mittelstadt. A center must also make plays along the wall. While there are fewer defensive responsibilities with playing wing, Mittelstadt embraces the challenge of being down the middle.
He has made progress defensively, though consistency remains an issue. Mittelstadt added he has grown more comfortable in the faceoff circle, despite his 39.8 winning percentage entering Tuesday. Repetition has helped, but he also credited the advice of Vladimir Sobotka, whose 52.6 faceoff winning percentage is the best among qualifying Sabres.
"My numbers haven’t been that good in the circle, but I feel way more comfortable," he said. "Rather than getting beat clean there are a lot of 50-50s, which is a good place to start. Other than that, defensive-zone stuff, which has been a pretty big topic all year. Those are areas I feel like I’m doing better. Keep progressing and keep getting better next year."
While Housley could experiment with Mittelstadt on the left side again, the Sabres' long-term plan is unlikely to change. They lack depth down the middle after trading Ryan O'Reilly to St. Louis, and are hopefully Mittelstadt will flourish with more NHL experience.
Defenseman Casey Nelson was a healthy scratch Tuesday night against Dallas, a decision Housley said was "mainly" performance based. However, Housley acknowledged there was a conversation with Nelson about how the 26-year-old responded following Colorado defenseman Nikita Zadorov's hit on Eichel.
While Nelson did not aggressively attack Zadorov, Sam Reinhart and Jeff Skinner scrambled to try to defend Eichel.
"I’m not going to get into that," Housley said when asked if he was displeased with Nelson's response. "We had a discussion with him, and we’ll just keep that in house."
Fedun scratched for Dallas
Defenseman Taylor Fedun, whom the Sabres traded to Dallas for a conditional seventh-round draft pick in November, was a healthy scratch for the Stars Tuesday night. Fedun, 30, has three goals among 10 points with a minus-1 rating in 43 games since the trade.
He was the odd man out on a crowded roster in Rochester and has helped the Stars survive a number of injuries on their blue line. Dallas coach Jim Montgomery credited Fedun, Miro Heiskanen and Roman Polak with having "really saved our season."
“What allows Taylor to be so effective for us is his hockey sense, his compete and his understanding positionally of how we want to play,” Montgomery said. “And he’s a great teammate in the locker room.”