Casey Mittelstadt

What is the long-term outlook for the Sabres?

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Buffalo Sabres.

Pending free agents

Dominik Kahun (RFA)
Curtis Lazar (RFA)
Brandon Montour (RFA)
Victor Olofsson (RFA)
Lawrence Pilut (RFA)
Sam Reinhart (RFA)
Tage Thompson (RFA)
Linus Ullmark (RFA)
Zemgus Girgensons (UFA)
Matt Hunwick (UFA)
Johan Larsson (UFA)
Michael Frolik (UFA)
Wayne Simmonds (UFA)
Vladimir Sobotka (UFA)
Jimmy Vesey (UFA)

The Core

The Buffalo Sabres have drafted two of the hardest pieces to find in the National Hockey League. A franchise center in Jack Eichel and a top-pairing defenseman in Rasmus Dahlin.

Sam Reinhart reached the 50-point mark for the third consecutive season and Victor Olofsson has been a pleasant surprise. However, the Sabres will need to find several more pieces to fill out the rest of the lineup to challenge in the top-heavy Atlantic Division.

Casey Mittelstadt is only 21 years of age, but after playing 77 games in 2018-19, he didn’t take the next step in his development. The young center played just 31 games in the NHL while spending the other half of the season with the Rochester Americans of the AHL. The maturation process varies from player to player, but the Sabres still expect Mittlestadt to grow into a formidable NHL player.

Two of the Sabres’ top five scorers (Dahlin and Rasmus Ristolainen) anchor the defensive group. Ristolainen has been the subject of trade rumors for several years now, but still is a right-handed shot defenseman with an offensive touch. Brandon Montour was acquired from the Anaheim Ducks in February of 2019 but is a pending restricted free agent.

Linus Ullmark has provided a boost in goal this season but hasn’t cemented himself as the long-term option. Several goaltenders could hit the free agency market this season and the Sabres could find a long-term solution at a reasonable price if they play their cards right.

Long-term needs for Sabres

The challenge for the Sabres front office has been finding the right complementary pieces to play alongside their foundational players. The Jeff Skinner contract extension is not providing the return expected with a $9 million average annual value. In 59 games this season, the high-priced forward has recorded only 23 points (14 goals, 9 assists).

The Sabres didn’t give up a valuable asset for Wayne Simmonds at the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline, but the idea that they gave up a draft pick for an expiring contract was strange to say the least. Simmonds’ value to the Sabres might not be measured by his on-ice performance but could be another veteran voice in the locker room. If he is extended in the offseason, Simmonds can be a sounding board for Eichel and Dahlin as the they continue to develop.

General manager Jason Botterill has six draft picks in the upcoming NHL Draft, but is missing his third and sixth-round picks from the Skinner acquisition in the summer of 2018. The Sabres have needs throughout their NHL lineup, but have limited assets and salary cap space to fill the holes.

Buffalo will miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the ninth straight season and will struggle to break that streak in 2020-21.

Long-term strengths

Eichel and Dahlin represent two foundational pieces and should be the face of the Sabres for years to come.

Head coach Ralph Krueger is also an interesting character and has gotten a lot out of his captain and Dahlin in his first season behind Buffalo’s bench. But, after an 8-1-1 start this season, Krueger was unable to stop the skid as his team fell out of the playoff picture.

Obviously, if there was more to add in the strength’s column, the Sabres would have finished higher in the standings and have a better trajectory for years to come.

MORE:
Looking at the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres
Sabres biggest surprises, disappointments so far

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

NHL on NBCSN: Sabres, Maple Leafs heating up

Jack Eichel John Tavares
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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Not every player, or every team, can be as hot as Jack Eichel is right now, what with his 16-game point streak.

Instead, both Eichel’s Buffalo Sabres and Tuesday’s opponent, the Toronto Maple Leafs, are aiming to survive before they can thrive. Each team has generated three wins in its last four games, staying on course while navigating bumps in the road.

Perhaps Tuesday’s game will serve as an opportunity for the Sabres or Maple Leafs to really accelerate?

Sabres staying scrappy

Buffalo saw a three-game winning streak end when the Islanders beat them 3-2 in OT on Saturday, but coach Ralph Krueger praised his team for carving out eight points in six games from Dec. 5-14.

“It was a big task in a very short period of time where the guys have shown energy right to the end and really just played a consistent game irrelevant of scores,” Krueger said via the Sabres website. “You can see the maturity of the group is evolving in a way we can take a lot of confidence out of this week.”

Naturally, it doesn’t hurt to get Rasmus Dahlin back. The splendid sophomore generated an assist in each of his first two games back, logging 24:02 time on ice during Saturday’s overtime loss. Eichel believes that Dahlin is already “finding his groove again,” which could be a serious boost for Buffalo, particularly on the power play.

[COVERAGE OF LEAFS-SABRES BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Seeing a young player such as Dahlin make a seemingly triumphant return takes some of the sting off of Casey Mittelstadt’s AHL demotion.

Maple Leafs making gains

Few are going to be blown away by the Maple Leafs’ 7-4-0 record under Sheldon Keefe, but Toronto still shows signs of being a sleeper.

It’s been very much a trial by fire for the first-time NHL head coach. The Maple Leafs were in the middle of a six-game road trip when Keefe stepped in, and Toronto won three games in a row, ending that stretch with a loss in Buffalo.

Overall, the Maple Leafs have only played two out of Keefe’s 11 games at home. With that in mind, it would be tough to knock this group for feeling mightier than their 16-14-4 record might indicate.

In particular, captain John Tavares sees positives in earning three wins during a four-game road trip.

“This (trip) should give us some confidence,” Tavares said via Field Level Media. “It should have been even better, but it is what it is. Now we have to follow it up, turn the page. Heading into the Christmas break, we want to make the most of the games we have.”

The Maple Leafs have shown signs of life by quite a few measures, and the upcoming schedule hints at opportunities to grow. That said, the 16-11-7 Sabres serve as a considerable hurdle, especially when Eichel and Dahlin are on the ice.

Tuesday night’s studio coverage will be hosted by Paul Burmeister alongside analysts Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter. Kenny Albert and Pierre McGuire will call Sabres-Maple Leafs from Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Sabres demote under-performing center Mittelstadt to minors

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres have assigned under-performing second-year center Casey Mittelstadt to the minors.

The demotion to Rochester of the AHL was made Sunday, coming a day following a 3-2 overtime loss at the New York Islanders in which Mittelstadt was a healthy scratch for the third time in four games.

The 21-year-old has four goals and five assists in 31 games this season, and limited to just a goal and an assist in his past 21. Buffalo selected the play-making center with the eighth pick in the 2017 draft following his senior year in high school.

He then signed with Buffalo and jumped directly to the NHL in making his Sabres debut immediately following his freshman college season at Minnesota.

Mittelstadt has failed to play up to early projections of developing into Buffalo’s second-line center. He has 17 goals and 22 assists for 39 points in 114 career NHL games.

What’s gone wrong for the Sabres?

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Exactly one year ago the Buffalo Sabres were in the middle of a 10-game winning streak that would catapult them to the top of the NHL standings. Expectations were increasing, excitement was building, and at the very least it seemed as if the team had at least banked enough points in the standings that their playoff drought would finally come to an end, barring some sort of unspeakably bad collapse.

Then the unspeakably bad collapse happened.

They responded with another coaching change (their fifth in eight years), re-signed Jeff Skinner, made a few tweaks to the roster, and roared out of the gate this season by winning eight of their first 10 games and once again gave their fans a brief glimpse of hope.

It has, once again, been all downhill ever since.

The Sabres enter Monday’s game against Boston having won just two of their previous 11 games (the two wins were against Ottawa and Detroit) and are facing a pretty grueling six-game stretch that has them play Boston, Florida, Tampa Bay, Calgary, and Toronto (twice). There are a lot of divisional games there which means things can swing pretty dramatically in either direction in a very short period of time. Pick up a few wins, and the season can still be salvaged. Lose, and things can start heading down a very disappointing path.

The problem a year ago is that the Sabres’ fast start was the result of a lot of good luck and a lot of smoke and mirrors. Almost every game on the 10-game winning streak was decided by a single goal and required overtime or a shootout. The underlying numbers as a team were poor and it seemed like a team just waiting to collapse on itself.

Let’s take a look at what’s gone wrong this season.

They just don’t have enough offense

Jack Eichel is one of the best players in the league, while Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart are solid complementary players at the top of the lineup. That trio has combined to score 13 of the team’s 22 goals over the past 11 games, meaning the rest of the team is doing almost nothing, and some of the numbers are pretty jarring.

Take Casey Mittelstadt, for example. The No. 8 overall pick from 2017 is in his second full season in the league and is supposed to be a long-term core building block. He has been a complete non-factor this season offensively, entering play on Monday with just three goals and only 21 shots on goal in 21 games. He has just five shots on goal over the team’s 11-game slide and has been held without a shot in seven of those games.

Marcus Johansson was one of the team’s offseason additions and got off to a strong start with four goals and seven total points in his first nine games. He has been sidelined for the past two weeks, but even before he went out of the lineup his offense had completely disappeared with only five shots in his final eight games. Six of those games resulted in no shots on goal.

There are 33 forwards in the NHL with at least 15 games played this season and averaging one shot on goal or less per game — four of those 33 players play for the Sabres. You can not score goals that way.

Rasmus Dahlin‘s sophomore struggles

The league’s reigning rookie of the year is actually ahead of his scoring pace from a year ago (at least as far as assists are concerned) but every other aspect of his game has seemingly taken a small step back. He even found himself benched in a recent game. Dahlin is one of the most important players in the Sabres’ organization because of the potential he has and the role he is expected to play. If he becomes the player he was projected to be entering the league he could be the type of defensemen that can significantly change a team’s fortune. During his rookie year he looked like he was on his way to being that player. There is no reason to be overly concerned that he still won’t get there, but he’s definitely going through some growing pains. And since the Sabres don’t have another defender that possesses his skill or potential, if he’s not dominating games from the blue line, no one will.

This simply might be all they are capable of

The biggest issue with the Sabres isn’t necessarily “what’s gone recently,” but rather “what if this this is as good as they are?”

What is the identity of this team? What does it do well?

Even though Eichel has met his pre-draft expectations and become a top-line player, there is not much help around him to make this a good offensive team unless the power play dominates. The power play was hot at the start of the year, but has cooled off considerably since.

They are not great defensively unless they get outstanding goaltending, and everything about their 5-on-5 play points to a mediocre (to maybe even bad) team. They rank 14th in shot attempt differential at even-strength, and sit among the bottom-six in scoring chance, high-danger scoring chances, and expected goals (all via Natural Stat Trick), while owning an even goal differential (39 for, 39 against). Nothing stands out about them, and that has to be the most frustrating thing for Sabres fans as they go through what could be a ninth consecutive year of this.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Hutton shuts door for Sabres; Pastrnak’s pasta day

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Three Stars

1. Carter Hutton, Buffalo Sabres

Are the Sabres for real? Time will tell, but it’s clear that Hutton is on fire.

Buffalo fattened its lead to 3-0 just a few minutes into the second period, and were able to sit on that edge, even as the Kings fired a lot of biscuits at Hutton. The 33-year-old goalie generated a 47-save shutout on Thursday, giving him a two-game shutout streak after he stopped all 25 shots against the Stars on Oct. 14.

Hutton’s now 5-0-0 on the season, and only allowed seven goals so far.

There are some Sabres who are inevitably going to cool down. That’s not meant to be an insult; instead, it’s pretty much unavoidable because they’re playing at such a high level. Hutton is up there with the hottest skaters on that team.

2. David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins

It honestly might be a little on-the-nose for Pastrnak to have such a great “National Pasta Day” by scoring two goals and one assist for Boston on Thursday.

Then again, it’s really just another day for Pastrnak.

After a quiet start to 2019-20 where he didn’t score any points in two games, Pastrnak’s been boiling lately, with 13 points in his last five contests, and seven points over his last two games.

The only thing that went a little stale for the 23-year-old was that the Bruins couldn’t win, as the Lightning ended up winning via a shootout.

3. Casey Mittelstadt, Buffalo Sabres

Normally, tiebreakers would go to players who are on different teams, but while there were plenty of other strong performances on Thursday, Mittelstadt and Pastrnak were the top scorers with three points.

Like Pastrnak, Mittelstadt managed two goals and one assist. You could definitely make a case that Mittelstadt deserves the second star, as one of his goals ended up being the game-winner for Buffalo.

Either way, it was quite the way for Mittelstadt to make the most of his modest ice time of 12:19 on Thursday. The sophomore has been a feast-or-famine scorer so far in 2019-20, collecting two assists to start the season, going six games without a point, and then managing three points on Thursday.

Most painful moment of the night

The Wild are a mess, but Joel Eriksson Ek showed that they’re still able to show courage. He blocked three shots from Shea Weber, which left Ek in a walking boot, but gained Weber’s respect, according to The Athletic’s Michael Russo.

Those moments were even more painful that these GIFs of unintentional comedy from the Kings.

Highlight of the Night

Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck robbed Islanders rookie Oliver Wahlstrom:

Factoids

 

Scores

TBL 4 – BOS 3 (SO)
MTL 4 – MIN 0
NJD 5 – NYR 2
VAN 4 – STL 3 (SO)
NYI 3 – WPG 1
CGY 5 – DET 1
ARI 5 – NSH 2
VGK 3 – OTT 2 (SO)
BUF 3 – LAK 0

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.