Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Mittelstadt leads prospect pool that's anything but empty

Published by, 7-31-2017

Buffalo Sabres top prospect Casey Mittelstadt had an impressive development camp earlier this month culminating with his Team White winning the French Connection 3-on-3 tournament. Buffalo's 2017 first-round selection (8th-overall) provided a little razzle-dazzle and displayed some snipe as he stole the show, according to Jourdan LaBarber of, at the tournament.

Mittelstadt is continuing to role at the 2017 World Junior Summer Showcase in Plymouth, Michigan. The 6' 0" 199 lb. Edina, Minnesota native is on USA White for that tournament and started out strong by notching a goal and adding an assist against Team Finland and Sabres 2017 second-round draft pick, goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. Mittlestadt's goal came with 7:52 left in the third period as he jumped on a turnover at the Finn blueline, went in all alone on Luukkonen and calmly roofed a back-hander to put the Americans up 4-2.

It's not surprising that Kris Baker of has the 18 yr. old Mittelstadt on top of his 2017 Summer prospect rankings. Baker had a tough time selecting between Mittelstadt and 2016 first round pick Alexander Nylander, who was also taken eighth overall. "You can argue that the hands, vision, sense and overall offensive upside of Mittelstadt and Nylander are comparable," wrote Baker. "Both are superior stickhandlers and playmakers that bring the ability to string together electrifying shifts in the offensive zone.

"In the end," concluded Baker, "Mittlestadt's battle skills, construction of a complete 200-foot game and competence playing the center position give the stocky Minnesotan the edge in settling the top overall spot."

The good part about Baker having a tough time deciding upon his top prospect is that the Sabres have some top prospects to debate about. While Mittelstadt and Nylander are clearly at the top of the food chain right now the Sabres have prospects in the pool that are filling out the system rather nicely.

When Buffalo went nuclear on their rebuild, which included former GM Tim Murray decimating the Rochester Americans there was a huge void in the system. The Amerks have had many first-year players entering the pro ranks with a support system that was generally turned over twice in the past two years. However, some of those rookies from the 2015-16 season will now be entering their third professional season and if they don't make the big club, Rochester will be better for it.

Two picks from the 2013 NHL Draft--forwards Justin Bailey (52nd) and Nick Baptiste (69th)--have two professional seasons under their belts and have shown strong year-over-year growth despite playing on poor teams. Bailey went from 20 goals in 70 games his first year in Rochester to 23 goals in 52 games last season. Baptiste went from 13 goals in 62 games to 29 goals in 59 games. Both also saw extended looks from the Sabres in 2016-17.

Joining them on the development growth chart is 2015 free agent forward Evan Rodrigues, who just signed a two-year contract extension with Buffalo. Rodrigues rode shotgun on Jack Eichel's wing in college and proved that he's not a product of playing wing with a franchise player. He had the exact same stat-line of 30 points (9+21) the last two seasons but did it in 24 less games last year. He also got an extended stay in Buffalo matching Bailey with 30 appearances for the Sabres.

Goalie Linus Ullmark has had a lot of reps in his first two North American pro seasons. In his first year he was summoned to the Sabres and played in 20 NHL games producing a very respectable stat-line of a 2.60 GAA and .913 Sv%. Ullmark was Rochester's No. 1 goalie last season and he went 26-27-2 with a 2.80 GAA and .909 Sv%. He'll be getting another full year of seasoning with the Amerks in 2017-18 as well.

That would be the first wave of youngins making their way through the ranks. Last year that group was joined by Nylander, Casey Nelson (2016, FA,) Hudson Fasching (2013, 118th, LAK,) and Vaclav Karabacek (2014, 49th,) among others.

This year we'll see defenseman Brendan Guhle as a first year pro. Guhle was selected 51st-overall in the 2015 draft and has had tastes of both Rochester and Buffalo. Back in 2015 it looked as if he was poised to make the club out of camp, but a "welcome to the NHL, boy" hit by Dion Phaneuf ended Guhle's preseason and he was sent back to junior. Last year he was summoned to Buffalo on an emergency basis and played three strong games for the Sabres leaving some angry that he wasn't on the club to begin with.

However, it's all about development, as new GM Jason Botterill will attest to. Guhle finished his junior career with a strong WHL season and will take the next step as a full-time pro with the Amerks even though he could probably hang with the big boys in Buffalo.

Guhle leads the next wave of prospects working their way through the system. Defenseman Devante Stephens (2015, 122nd) will be joining the Amerks blueline after three years in junior. Two college players will also be joining the Amerks--winger C.J. Smith and center Sean Malone. Murray signed Smith signed in March out of UMASS-Lowell after the junior decided to forgo his senior season. Smith had 51 points (23+28) in 41 games for the River Hawks in a tough Hockey-East division. Malone was selected in the sixth round (159th) in 2013 and graduated from Harvard. He signed a pro contract on April 8th and played for the Sabres that night.

You could say that there are no superstars in the system from those first two waves post-rebuild,  and it would be accurate, the Sabres already have their first round picks from 2013-15 playing in the NHL. Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (2013, 8th) is on the top-pairing for Buffalo and 2014 second-overall pick Sam Reinhart is a part of the top-six forward group. Eichel, who was selected second-overall in 2015, is on the cusp of being the franchise player he was drafted for.

Despite Eichel jumping right from college to pro and Reinhart skipping the AHL save for three games, the prospect pool still has potential stars in it like Mittelstadt, Nylander and even Guhle. The rest will be allowed to develop at their own pace and become what they will. Having superstars is a great thing but having a prospect pool that can yield stars and quality role players is just as important as Botterill knows from his Pittsburgh Penguins days. And despite some claims that the prospect pool is weak, former GM Murray didn't leave an empty cupboard.

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