Mittelstadt driven by dogged work ethic
Sabres prospect has grown into one of hockey's can't-miss prospects
By Ryan Evans
Beneath Casey Mittelstadt’s reserved off-ice persona burns a quiet intensity that has thrust the American forward into the spotlight of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship and fueled his development into one of hockey’s most electrifying young prospects.
It does not take long to see that Mittelstadt oozes playmaking ability. His capacity to drive the puck into the slot and other high-danger areas of the ice is complimented by quick, soft hands and a natural knack for finding the back of the net—all of which was on display as he netted a brace in a dynamic World Juniors debut in Team USA’s 9-0 win over Denmark on Tuesday.
“He was doing the right things and we all saw his stickhandling ability,” U.S. head coach Bob Motzko said. “That was a great start for Casey. For a skill guy, there is nothing like scoring a few goals to feel like you’re in the tournament.”
The first impression you get of Mittelstadt, though, is not that of one of USA Hockey’s most prized up-and-coming talents. Despite his many laudations—2017 Minnesota Mr. Hockey, two-time ALL-USA Boys Hockey Player of the Year and the distinction of the Sabres making him the highest picked American at last summer’s NHL Draft to name a few—teammates say the Eden Prairie, Minn., native remains grounded.
“Off the ice, he is such a humble guy,” USA defenseman Ryan Lindgren, one of Mittelstadt’s teammates at the University of Minnesota, said. “You would not be able to tell that he is a former Mr. Hockey and eighth overall pick by the way he carries himself.”
But below Mittelstadt’s unassuming guise lies a dogged work ethic and fierce competitive streak that has powered his fast start to both the World Juniors and his collegiate career. Minnesota head coach Don Lucia told the Star Tribune there is some “bulldog” in Mittelstadt, who has five goals and ranks second on the team with 17 points in his first 19 games with the Gophers. He had points in five straight games to close out the NCAA’s first half.
“Off of the ice, I am pretty laid back,” Mittelstadt said, “but otherwise I consider myself one of the more competitive people out there.”
The 6-foot, 201-pound forward’s gaudy offensive numbers over the first half of his freshman season are not a surprise. But since arriving at Minnesota, and in preparation for the World Junior Championship in Buffalo, he has pushed himself to become a more well-rounded 200-foot player, and has placed added emphasis on fine tuning his defensive game and building strength. To that end, you will find him seeking extra ice time or staying late after practices to work with teammates and the Gophers’ coaching staff – efforts that have borne fruit as he takes the international stage.
As noted by Motzko after the win over Denmark, Mittelstadt wants to have the puck on his stick. He hunts pucks and does so in all three zones of the ice. Just when opponents think they have a step, he uses his speed to create turnovers and shift the play back the other way.
“College has taught me a lot and I have grown quite a bit,” Mittelstadt said. “I have worked with the coaching staff and am going to keep working on things like faceoffs and improving defensively. There is a lot of time for me to get in the weight room too, which is important.”
Mittelstadt said he has not set many personal goals for this year’s World Junior Championship, opting instead to focus on his country’s pursuit of a second straight gold medal – which would be a first in USA Hockey’s history. It could be made all the more special for him personally with his future NHL home serving as the stage.
“Having it in Buffalo is a little cherry on top, but I have high expectations for myself no matter where the tournament is,” Mittelstadt said. “Whether it is here or not, I expect myself to play to the best of my abilities.
“Anytime you’re playing on this big of a stage, especially for us, there is going to be a little bit of nerves, but we’re a pretty close team and we’re able to stick together through things like that.”
Lindgren, a member of last year’s gold medal-winning team, believes Mittelstadt is key for USA’s hopes of securing its first-ever title on home ice. He thinks he can be this tournament’s Clayton Keller or Colin White for the Americans – a player who they can count on to come through in key situations with a big goal or by making a play that puts them through to victory.
“He is such a dynamic player and a game changer,” Lindgren said. “We need him to provide offense and be a leader and I think he has done a great job of that.”
After Tuesday’s convincing rout of Denmark, Mittelstadt and Team USA continue Group A play on Thursday against Slovakia. Faceoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. against Slovakia at KeyBank Center. Team USA will then head outdoors on Friday to take on Canada at New Era Field in the first-ever outdoor game in World Juniors history as preliminary round action hits the stretch run.