The Buffalo Sabres are no longer willing to wait for Casey Mittelstadt to learn on the job in the National Hockey League.
Mittelstadt, a 21-year-old drafted eighth overall in 2017, was assigned to the Rochester Americans on Sunday night after being a healthy scratch in three of the Sabres' past four games. Mittelstadt has struggled to adjust to playing center in the NHL, and he was not showing improvement under coach Ralph Krueger.
Mittelstadt had four goals among nine points with a minus-5 rating in 31 games this season. An admittedly poor defensive effort Dec. 7 at Vancouver resulted in Mittelstadt being a healthy scratch for the first time this season, as he sat in the Rogers Place press box the following night for the Sabres' 3-2 overtime win over the Edmonton Oilers.
"Obviously you want to play every game, but it's not a secret I didn't play well in Vancouver," Mittelstadt said he drew back into the lineup Tuesday against the St. Louis Blues. "You obviously watch a little bit of film and had a nice talk with coach. It’s nice watching a game from up top, too. I think when you’re always playing you get stuck in it and when you kind of get to watch from up top and see the whole rink. See some room and think about what you would do in certain situations. It was good."
Against the Blues, he recorded no shots on goal with a minus-1 rating in 10:26 of ice time. He was scratched Thursday in KeyBank Center against the Nashville Predators and Saturday for the Sabres' 3-2 overtime loss to the New York Islanders.
Mittelstadt struggled during training camp and preseason in September, however, he had three goals among seven points with a plus-6 rating through the Sabres' first 10 games this season. In addition to developing chemistry with Jimmy Vesey and Conor Sheary, Mittelstadt showed progress in Krueger's defensive system.
Mittelstadt's play with and without the puck began to slip, though. He had zero points with a minus-7 rating and only 12 shots on goal, five of which came Nov. 25 against Tampa Bay, during a 15-game span from Oct. 24 through Nov. 27.
Krueger and General Manager Jason Botterill showed patience with Mittelstadt. After a brief but failed experiment last season, Mittelstadt was again shifted to the wing. The thinking was that a positional shift would free him up to create more offense.
His scoring drought ended Nov. 29 with a deflection goal during a 6-4 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs inside KeyBank Center. More defensive lapses, including a minus-2 rating during a 6-5 overtime loss to the Vancouver Canucks, proved to be Mittelstadt's undoing. He will head to Rochester with 114 games of experience in the NHL.
"We’re just nothing but excited with the way he dealt with (being scratched) and the time we had with him and the coaching we were able to do with him," Krueger said after scratching Mittelstadt in Edmonton on Dec. 8. "It’s part of what we’re doing, growing these players with different kinds of experiences. Today was his turn to take a look."
Among the 217 players selected in the 2017 draft, only six have played more than 100 games in the NHL: Mittelstadt, New Jerseys' Nico Hischier, Philadelphia's Nolan Patrick, Dallas' Miro Heiskanen, Vancouver's Elias Pettersson and the New York Rangers' Filip Chytill.
Despite Mittelstadt's struggles, it's still a significant philosophical shift for Botterill, who expressed confidence in the young center's ability to adjust. Botterill waited 65 games before sending Tage Thompson to Rochester last March.
Significant expectations have followed Mittelstadt since he became Botterill's first draft pick. Less than seven months after being selected by the Sabres, Mittelstadt had a breakout performance at the IIHF World Junior Championship in Buffalo by tying for the tournament lead with 11 points in seven games for the United States.
Mittelstadt also performed well during his freshman season at the University of Minnesota, scoring 11 goals among 30 points in 34 games. He signed his entry-level contract with the Sabres in March 2018 and scored one goal among five points in six games before the end of the season.
It was widely expected that Mittelstadt would fill the void at center created when the Sabres traded Ryan O'Reilly to the St. Louis Blues that July. Mittelstadt, though, struggled to adjust to the 82-game NHL schedule and finished with 12 goals among 25 points and a minus-19 rating in 77 games as a rookie.
Mittelstadt spent the offseason adding muscle mass to better prepare himself for the physical grind, but his development will now take place under coach Chris Taylor in Rochester. The Amerks are in first place in the American Hockey League's North Division with a 18-4-2 record, a three-point lead over the Toronto Marlies.
Though Thompson remains out with an upper-body injury, Rochester's roster also includes Curtis Lazar, Jean-Sebastien Dea, C.J. Smith, Andrew Oglevie, Brett Murray, Lawrence Pilut, Jacob Bryson, John Gilmour and Will Borgen.
The Sabres, meanwhile, have 12 forwards and eight defensemen, including Zach Bogosian, who reportedly requested a trade.