In the 2017 NHL Draft, the Buffalo Sabres used their first-round pick (eighth overall) to select forward Casey Mittelstadt. Though diminutive in size, Mittelstadt was a desirable draft pick because of his playmaking abilities and agility – and those attributes at the time far outweighed concerns about his shot and his off-puck play.
Three years later, the Sabres are at a bit of a crossroads with Mittelstadt. He has played 114 NHL games and serious questions remain about whether Mittelstadt can be an impact forward. The defensive numbers have been shaky, but more concerning is his lack of offensive production – his 39 points over the last three seasons (1.45 points per 60 minutes) are in the 27th percentile across qualified skaters. The combination of the two forced a midseason demotion to Rochester.
A couple of incredibly important caveats here:
- Mittelstadt is just 21 – still a couple of years out from what we consider peak performance years for NHL skaters.
- The Sabres have been a one-line team the last three years, which has not lent itself well to the production of anyone in the bottom nine. Mittelstadt owns a piece of that, but it is important contextually to recognize his most common linemates have been names like Conor Sheary, Kyle Okposo, Evan Rodrigues and Tage Thompson.
At any rate, there is enough to be concerned about whether Mittelstadt will live up to his draft pedigree. This puts Buffalo in an interesting position this summer – one where they might have their last shot at dangling that draft pedigree for real value to upgrade elsewhere. The other option, of course, is to continue pressing his development through his second contract and hope his game materializes.
To answer that question, the Sabres need to understand what Mittelstadt has and has not provided. We can look at his underlying numbers over this three-year stretch and grade him out against his peers for quick reference.
Regardless of whether you are bullish or bearish on Mittelstadt’s future, his first 114 games have been humbling. The good news is it’s not a complete lost cause – Mittelstadt carries a ridiculously good penalty differential and his line tends to create some degree of offense while on the ice. Over three seasons, Mittelstadt’s line has scored 2.3 goals per 60 minutes, which is around the 45th percentile. Relative to the teammates he’s played with, that jumps to the 60th percentile. (Again, the teammate quality has not been great.)
But the primary areas of concern are his individual offensive production and the defensive numbers with Mittelstadt on the ice, and those are the areas that will help determine his long-term value.
The Sabres would likely be fine with Mittelstadt’s offensive game if they were seeing scoring spikes from his teammates when he’s on the ice. They aren’t, and his individual numbers are fairly underwhelming.
Maybe the bigger problem is that Buffalo’s defensive results are nightmarish with Mittelstadt on the ice. You can’t attribute it to merely goaltending – shot rates and expected goal rates are reflective of a fourth-liner, and that’s true regardless if you are looking at the raw numbers or analyzing how he impacts the defensive numbers of his teammates.
Of course, the thing about Mittelstadt is you don’t know everything yet. He could be a late bloomer. He could be truly disadvantaged from teammate quality. He could still be growing into his frame. All those are possibly true.
But the risk of waiting on a prospect is significant. The Sabres were at a similar decision point with defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen a few years back – a player with a lot of pedigree and some offensive flair, but ugly underlying numbers year after year – and chose to stand pat.
Mittelstadt is very young, and there is risk in giving up on him too early. But the perceived value of this player is still quite high, the needs of this Sabres team are significant, and the number of tradeable players on the roster can probably be counted on one hand.
Getting it right with Mittelstadt this summer and beyond is mission critical.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, NHL.com