BUFFALO, NY – Growing up in Minnesota Casey Mittelstadt got a firsthand taste of how big a deal high school hockey was in his home state from a young age. The experience led the Edina, Minnesota native to take an unusual path in his hockey career this season.
The 18-year-old started the season with the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL scoring eight goals and 13 assists in 16 games between September and mid-November. Mittelstadt then went back to Minnesota and Eden Prairie High School to try and help the Eagles win a state championship.
Mittelstadt tallied 21 goals and 43 helpers in 25 regular season games with Eden Prairie High School. At the State Tournament, he added three points in three games as the Eagles finished third.
The six-foot-one, 201-pound centre then returned to Green Bay to appear in eight games over March and April recording five goals and four assists.
“Pretty much every interview I had (my season) came up,” Mittelstadt said of the 17 teams he met with at the recent NHL Scouting Combine. “(I) Just told them the story was honest with them. I went back to try to win a state title with my buddies and that’s about it. It came up pretty much every meeting though.”
Mittelstadt admitted it’s difficult for someone outside of Minnesota to understand the hype over high school hockey in the state.
“You kind of grow up, and when you’re from Minny, State Championship is almost like the Stanley Cup,” he said. “I don’t mean that to minimize the Stanley Cup, it just shows how much it means to the kids and the people around.
“Every time the state tournament comes around, it pretty much ends up being a holiday. I probably haven’t been to school those days in the last 10 years. I think it turns into a holiday, especially for the kids, and I think we all really enjoy it.”
USA Hockey called on Mittelstadt on two occasions last season. At the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship he registered four goals and five assists in seven games helping the Americans win a bronze medal.
Then at the 2016 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, Mittelstadt chipped in three goals and seven points in four games as the U.S. won silver.
Described as a forward with the playmaking ability to be a high-end NHL player, Mittelstadt has excellent hockey sense and makes plays, which even surprise his teammates.
He plays the game at a high pace, tracks down pucks and wins loose puck battles. Mittelstadt is versatile in that he can kill penalties and also play the point on the power play.
“Very explosive and will challenge the opposing defenceman 1-on-1 at (the junior) level,” said ISS Hockey scout Jose Charbonneau. “Very good puck skills in tight areas and will not shy from contact to make a play.
“He is more of a choppy skater and will need to become more fluid to have better pace at the higher level.”
In ISS Hockey’s October rankings Mittelstadt was the 13th ranked player for NHL draft, which goes June 23-24 in Chicago. Despite his unconventional season, he moved up six spots to seventh overall in ISS Hockey’s 2017 Draft Guide.
Mittelstadt says he grew up watching Sidney Crosby as a child, but admits his game in no way resembles the Penguins captain. He also idolized Minnesota natives Nick Leddy of the New York Islanders and Florida Panthers forward Kyle Rau.
“I think my biggest strengths are my vision and my creativity - I try to use those things to make the guys around me better,” said Mittelstadt. “I think I can be a passer and a scorer so I try to be a mix of that. (I) try to make guys around me better, that’s the main thing I do well.”
Even though he was a point per game player wherever he played this season, scouts feel he could’ve been more of a goal-scorer if he was more selfish with the puck.
“I think there’s definitely times where I probably should’ve been shooting the puck a bit more myself, but I’m an unselfish player,” he said. “I like to make guys around me better and I think the more involved everyone is the happier everyone is and the better everyone will play.
“I definitely think making guys around me better helps. I think if I go out there and do that, scouts will notice.”
Projected as a second line offensive centre at the NHL level, Mittelstadt will need to work on his defensive game and improve his strength while at the University of Minnesota next season to be effective at the pro level.
“I think I was kind of a late grower so I’ve got a lot of things to get stronger on and get in the weight room,” Mittelstadt said. “A lot of little things: learn to play without the puck a little more, I had the puck on my stick quite a bit growing up - I think those are the main things.”