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Casey Mittelstadt trying to 'take that jump' after challenging rookie season with Sabres

With three weeks remaining in the Buffalo Sabres' season, Casey Mittelstadt called his trainer, Erik Rasmussen, in March to make plans to start their offseason workouts.

The date Mittelstadt wanted to begin: April 12, only three days after the Sabres' season finale in Detroit.

"I said, ‘There’s no way you’re starting then,'" Rasmussen, Director of Player Development at MAP South Hockey in Mendota Heights, Minn., recalled during a recent phone interview. "Casey said, ‘I will be there and we’re starting.’ ... Casey is driving it. It’s no one else telling him to work like this."

The results of that offseason regimen won't be on display in Buffalo until Sabres training camp begins in three weeks. However, Mittelstadt appeared bigger and stronger when he participated in the team's FanFest event at KeyBank Center earlier this month.

Mittelstadt passed General Manager Jason Botterill's eye test. The Sabres will count on Mittelstadt, who will turn 21 in November, to contribute more during his second full NHL season, particularly on offense. Mittelstadt likely will be in competition to center the team's second line and should play a prominent role under new coach Ralph Krueger.

"Casey, just seeing him here today, I think he’s taken a big step," Botterill said at FanFest. "He’s taken the summer very seriously. ... He faced some adversity last year. We challenged him a little bit about some of his conditioning in the summer. I think he’s really done that extremely well. I think it’s always that first or second year, that’s where good players take that jump."

Mittelstadt wasn't entirely pleased with his play last season. He scored 12 goals among 25 points with a minus-19 rating while averaging 13:27 minutes of ice time in 77 games. The former eighth overall draft pick thought he was capable of more.

Though Mittelstadt impressed during a six-game stint with the Sabres in 2017-18, he didn't have to navigate the challenge of playing three games in four nights or the hectic travel of an 82-game NHL season. The schedule is a grind for young players, and Mittelstadt also was learning on the ice.

His defensive awareness improved late in the season -- no small feat considering the matchups he would draw on the road -- and he started having more success in the faceoff circle, though he won only 39.7 percent of his draws. Despite posting a point in back-to-back games and only six contests remaining in the season, Mittelstadt was scratched by former coach Phil Housley in New Jersey on March 25.

Housley told reporters that Mittelstadt needed to "take a step back" and cited the number of games Mittelstadt had played up to that point in the season.

"I think I just learned pretty much everything away from the rink -- you name it, I pretty much had to do it, which is different for me," Mittelstadt said of the adjustment. "Obviously, even going to college, I was still close to home. I think that was probably the biggest thing for me and the physical grind, along with the mental grind, of playing three in four and traveling and all that stuff is something I’ve never done.

"I kind of figured that out and figured out what you need to do with your body to get yourself ready. It takes a little bit of time, but I think once you kind of get that down and get that figured out, your routines are set."

After posting a minus-11 rating over his final 13 games, Mittelstadt was challenged by team brass during his exit interview. The Sabres wanted Mittelstadt to improve his upper body strength and conditioning. His high-end skill flashed throughout the season, but he needed to become stronger in order to consistently win one-on-one battles in the NHL.

That's where Rasmussen came in. Rasmussen was drafted seventh overall by the Sabres in 1996 and played nine NHL seasons, including five in Buffalo. The two convened at MAP South only a few days after the regular season ended and have worked together four or five times a week since.

Mittelstadt, along with other players, lifts weights in the facility's gym from roughly 8 a.m. to  10 a.m., eats breakfast or lunch, and participates in an on-ice workout for around 90 minutes. Rasmussen hasn't concocted an unorthodox plan to help Mittelstadt improve. Instead, the two have followed the one laid out by the Sabres. Mittelstadt's progress has been the result of physical and mental maturity, Rasmussen said.

"Casey’s motivation in the gym, in the weight room and on the ice has definitely matured," Rasmussen said. "He’s put more emphasis on himself to be better prepared for this coming season. You can only tell him so many times, ‘Hey, this is going to be much harder than you think.’ He went through that process last year and he didn’t have a bad year or a great year. I think he had a very good year and he made some growth, but there’s more he wants out of himself. That’s the driving factor. Casey has been way more involved in wanting to make those changes."

There are fewer unknowns for Mittelstadt entering training camp this year. Last September, he was thrust into a competition to center the Sabres' second line, and he wasn't familiar with most of his teammates. After all, his late-season stint in 2017-18 did not provide enough time to develop chemistry.

Aside from having a new coach, Mittelstadt knows what to expect next month, and he expressed confidence that he's better prepared to make an impact on the ice for the Sabres.

"It should be really good," Mittelstadt said. "I'm definitely more comfortable."

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