One of the top forwards in the draft went back to his Minnesota high school team for one last shot at a state title – but he also lit up the USHL this year.
In a draft class where cautious optimism is the name of the game, it’s still fun to project Casey Mittelstadt’s future. The skilled center flirted with the idea of fast-tracking to the University of Minnesota this season and could have spent the whole year in the USHL, but in the end decided to return to Eden Prairie high school in order to take one more crack at the vaunted Minnesota State High School tournament championship.
“I’ve had the same teammates since I was four or five years old,” Mittelstadt said. “Growing up in Minnesota, you go to the state tournament every year and it’s fun to try and win a state title. I definitely have no regrets.”
Coming from Eden Prairie made the hunger even stronger. The Eagles last won the title in 2011 when Kyle Rau (now with the Florida Panthers) scored the winner in triple-overtime by diving at a puck that squirted through the Duluth East goalie’s pads. Mittelstadt was at that game.
And though Mittelstadt tore up the high school ranks to the tune of 64 points in 25 games, his squad lost in the semifinal to the eventual champs from Grand Rapids (I’ve been told by scouts that he was banged up at the time). It’s still impressive, given that he was the most high-profile player in the state this season, attracting extra attention from every team he played against.
“You learn to play through it,” he said. “It’s tough some nights, but you try to be a passer, use your teammates and go from there. That’s how you handle it.”
Mittelstadt also handled the USHL this year. Since the high school season starts in late November and ends in early March, the Eden Prairie superstar had time to bookend campaign with two stints in Green Bay – one before and one after the Eden Prairie schedule.
And though the USHL can be a tough circuit for younger players, Mittelstadt was a terror for the Gamblers, posting 30 points in 24 games and registering the best points-per-game rate in the entire league. As a comparison point, 2016 Dallas Stars first-rounder Riley Tufte (who also split his season for Minnesota high school) put up just half a point per game for the USHL’s Fargo Force last year – but this season Tufte ended up as a very good freshman at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
So yeah, there might be something to this Mittelstadt kid.
“He’s such a competitive player,” said Green Bay coach-GM Pat Mikesch. “Great hockey sense and elite offensive skill. He runs the power play and he attacks on the rush.”
And the interest is certainly high. Mittelstadt was one of five top-ranked players brought out to speak to the media at the draft combine and while he was in Buffalo, he interviewed with 15 NHL franchises (including the hometown Sabres, who are slated to pick eighth but would likely have to move up to get him).
Playing in Green Bay allowed the young center to prove himself against stronger competition and also map out some aspects of his game to keep working on next season. Along with the usual need for strength in a prospect, Mittelstadt could still get a little faster.
NCAA weight rooms are a great place to build on a budding frame, though Mittelstadt was probably headed to Minnesota no matter how big and strong he was. The decision was practically baked into his DNA.
“For me it wasn’t a very hard one,” he said. “I’ve been a Gopher fan my whole life and I’ve been going to their games as long as I can remember.”
For a program accustomed to going for it all, adding a talent such as Mittelstadt will be a great boost for Minnesota, even if he’s not there for the full four years. He’s a student of the game and it shows in his influences.
“My favorite player is Sidney Crosby; I try to take things from him,” he said. “But obviously it’s hard to be Sidney Crosby.”
True, but being Casey Mittelstadt isn’t too shabby, either.