ROCHESTER – Casey Mittelstadt leaned against a wall in a hallway adjacent to the Blue Cross Arena ice, tilted his head toward the Rochester Americans' dressing room and smiled while explaining how he's adjusting to an assignment that came as a surprise.
"I've loved it down here," Mittelstadt, a 21-year-old center, said following the morning skate Friday. "I haven’t played this much in a while, so it’s been fun being able to play, making plays with the puck and having some fun. It’s been really good."
Mittelstadt didn't feel sorry for himself when he was assigned to the Amerks by the Sabres on Dec. 15. After the initial feelings of shock and disappointment subsided, he quickly decided that embracing his opportunity in Rochester was the only path back to Buffalo.
The former eighth overall draft pick has since positioned himself to receive another call to the NHL. In addition to his seven goals with seven assists in 21 games with Rochester, Mittelstadt is using an improved defensive approach to consistently create scoring chances.
"I think he’s maturing a lot right before us," Rochester coach Chris Taylor said. "It was hard at the start coming down, there’s no question. It was hard for him to adjust to the different refereeing, how we play is a little different. He’s adjusting every day and he’s opening up a lot more with the guys. He’s becoming one of our leaders."
When Mittelstadt was scratched in three of four games from Dec. 8-14, the Sabres decided he was better off having a prominent role in Rochester, rather than treading water in the NHL. Though Mittelstadt flashed his talent at times while scoring 17 with 22 assists over parts of three seasons, consistency was an issue.
After scoring three goals with four assists in the Sabres' first 10 games this season, Mittlestadt had only one goal on 18 shots with one assist and a minus-11 rating over his next 21 games.
The trouble began on defense. Mittelstadt wasn't making enough plays without the puck to help the Sabres regain possession, and he began to struggle to cover opponents in the defensive zone. Those mistakes would lead to diminished playing time – Mittelstadt played less than 12 minutes in 12 games with the Sabres – and he didn't have the puck enough to make an impact offensively.
Taylor and the Amerks' coaching staff are willing and able to let Mittelstadt play through those mishaps, and improvement has come with more ice time.
"The biggest thing for me down here is now that I’m playing more, I’m a lot more patient," Mittelstadt said. "When I was in Buff, I’m sure I forced things more with fewer minutes and trying to do more than what’s given. I’m learning to be more patient. … Sometimes live to fight another day.
"When you’re playing a lot and you make one mistake it’s not a huge deal. You go back out and kind of make up for that. Obviously playing less minutes in Buffalo, if you make a mistake you’re usually not going back out for a while. That’s been new. It’s been different for me. And the more you play the better you’re going to get and less mistakes happen."
Mittelstadt has logged more than 20 minutes in games with the Amerks, including time on the power play and penalty kill. The latter is helping him improve defensively at even strength – Rochester used a similar plan with Victor Olofsson and Tage Thompson – which is earning Taylor's trust.
Mittelstadt took defensive-zone faceoffs with the opposing net empty in the final moments of Rochester's 4-2 win Wednesday in Cleveland.
The improvement is part of a thorough plan to help Mittelstadt return to Buffalo.
The Amerks' coaching staff works with its forwards after practice on nuances such as winning battles along the wall, an area in which Mittelstadt needed to improve. Video study has also taught him the value of patience.
Rather than trying to stick-handle around defenders when there isn't an open passing lane – a common occurrence during his 114 games in the NHL – Mittelstadt is learning to use his shot to create chances in front of the net. He has 19 shots over his last seven games, compared to 10 in seven games from Jan. 4-19.
"He’s got the vision to make plays and it’s great to see him generate off of shots," Rochester assistant coach Toby Petersen said. "It’s something we’re trying to point out to him a lot through video – how much shooting the puck can break up a good defense. Guys will have good structure and they’ll have good positions, but all of a sudden the puck gets to the net and you see that’s when mistakes are made. … It’s good to see him start to shoot the puck and play the sort of good, selfish hockey we’re looking for."
The transition wasn't seamless. Mittelstadt had one assist and a minus-4 rating in his first five games with the Amerks, as he was slow to adjust to the chaotic nature of the American Hockey League. Few teams play with the defensive structure that Mittelstadt was accustomed to facing in the NHL.
As many as three opposing players were chasing after him in the offensive zone. The league's on-ice officials are also known to call fewer stick-infraction penalties.
The acclimation period is over. Mittelstadt has three goals and four assists in his past seven games entering Saturday's game against the Toronto Marlies. He scored a goal in three consecutive games from Jan. 3-8, and he had two points in Rochester's 5-2 loss to Syracuse on Friday.
Mittelstadt stripped the puck from a Binghamton player in the defensive zone before scoring his first AHL goal on a backhanded shot Jan. 3. He's also using his high-end skill to create, as illustrated Jan. 31 against Syracuse when he skated past a defenseman on the breakout before receiving a pass in the neutral zone and scoring with another backhander.
"He’s starting to produce more from an offensive standpoint," Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill told WGR Radio on Tuesday. "You look at, not just his offensive numbers, but what he’s creating from a chances standpoint. It’s top of the league from that situation. Very similar to what Tage Thompson was doing at the start of the year. We’ve been very happy with Casey’s maturity in the situation."
Six other Amerks have been recalled to the NHL since Mittelstadt was assigned, but stability has allowed him to focus on his progress and develop synergy with a team he'll likely be part of in the Calder Cup Playoffs.
The off-ice adjustment hasn't been difficult, either. He is friends with C.J. Smith and Will Borgen, and knew others from previous camps. Mittelstadt is living in a Rochester hotel and occasionally carpools to and from Blue Cross Arena with goalie prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.
It's uncertain how long Mittelstadt will be in Rochester. While Botterill has shown patience thus far, the Sabres will likely trade some of their pending unrestricted free agents before the deadline Feb. 24, which could create an opportunity for Mittelstadt to have a more significant role in Buffalo.
A potential recall isn't on Mittelstadt's mind. His attention is directed at helping the Amerks win and ensuring he is developing into a full-time NHL player.
"Obviously, you don’t want to get sent down," Mittelstadt said. "You want to be up all the time, but things weren’t going my way. I’ll be the first to admit I wasn’t playing well, either. You focus here and play well, that’s how I’ll get called up. Focus on what I’m doing. It's obviously out of my control. I can play well and try to do things to help me get called up, but ultimately, it’s not my decision. Just go play."