2016-17 Teams: Eden Prairie High (USHS) Green Bay Gamblers (USHL)
Stats: 21 G, 43 A, 8 PIM in 25 Games (USHS) / 13 G, 17 A, 2 PIM in 24 Games (USHL)
Average Draft Rank Among the 12 Most Popular Scouting Services: 5.8.
NHL Comparable Player: Barry Sanders - His Eden Prairie coach’s words, not mine.
My high school experience at Nolan Catholic in Fort Worth was pretty basic. I kept my head above water academically, thought Can’t Hardly Wait reflected modern romance, and spent weekends eating pizza with friends in the figurative presence of Jackie Chan.
And yet if someone asked me to leave high school early for an impromptu adventure, I might have hesitated despite my vanilla existence. For reasons you have to help this poor writer understand, Casey Mittelstadt’s decision to cut his USHL season short in order to return to high school, is a “concern” for some.
Perhaps because his story is unconventional by the draft’s vanilla standards. Many of his teammates at Eden Prairie were friends who grew up with him since the age of 5.
Eden Prairie itself is a proud team in the tough Lake Conference, where Minnesota’s high school tournament holds their shindig in St. Paul with 18,000 witnesses of its puck pageantry.
Mittelstadt’s decision to return to high school is as simply human as any Charles Bronson revenge film: redemption. His words. Not mine. Redemption for his high school team winning a title that they lost in seasons prior.
Drafting players out of high school might not be the norm. But it’s not a reach either. Anders Lee, Alex Goligoski, Jake Gardiner, David Backes, Nick Leddy, Ryan McDonagh, Blake Wheeler, and T.J. Oshie are among several more drafted out of Minnesota’s high school program alone.
Mittelstadt’s numbers in high school are not why’s being talked about as a top five pick. As soon as he broke into the USHL, he made a name for himself:
Mittelstadt plays a dynamic game across all three zones. Squint your eyes, imagine Dylan Larkin with better vision and playmaking acumen, and you have some idea of what Mittelstadt can bring.
Even though he profiles as a high-end offensive player, as you can see above, he plays a solid 200 foot game. Within seconds, he’s able to puck jack a forward and burn through the neutral zone for some impressive stickwork to find the open man in the slot with two players bearing down on him.
In open ice he’s just as thrilling. With a nitrous oxide engine stuck in his skates, he powers through all three zones with his legs, stickwork, and blades (often simultaneously) to breach the offensive zone. You can’t see it, but his shot from the top of the left circle beats the netminder to display his accurate, and deadly release.
If Dallas is missing anything in their underwhelming prospect system, it’s a center to take over the Jason Spezza role- someone with vision to make the players around him better. Here Mittelstadt displays these traits, keeping his head up, and with the vision to sift a backhand pass right through the high slot for the easy tap in after an immaculate toe drag.
Can he do this at the NHL level? I’ve come to think of “NHL readiness” as a special kind of circular logic: people define “readiness” only after the fact. As if skepticism is any different than trust when it comes to a player’s talents, and whether said talents translate across leagues.
At least five NHL scouts attended every Green Bay USHL game in order to watch Mittelstadt.
The common criticism leveled against Mittelstadt is that in the USHL, the majority of his points came on the power play. Which is true. He scored 18 points (out of 30) on the man advantage.
This criticism rings hollow for two reasons: the first is that most offensive players score a sizeable percentage of their points on the power play. Just look at Dallas’ big three: Jamie Benn (37 percent), Tyler Seguin (40 percent), and John Klingberg (34 percent). Second, only 14 of his 72 points were scored on the power play in the USHS. No one will ever make the argument that the USHS is a top tier proving ground. But to the extent that high school hockey is challenging, there is none stronger than the Lake Conference.
There’s also the issue of style. As they say in prizefighting, styles make fights. I feel like the same is true of systems.
With so many big north/south wingers in Dallas’ system, it would behoove them to select a player with above average skating to give his wingers east/west options. As Ottawa has shown, teams sometimes slow the game down, and when that happens, you need players who can adjust with vision and IQ; players that can anticipate, and reset in transition -a skill that’s tougher on big, hulking wingers that Dallas already has an abundance of.
In case it isn’t obvious, I’m not hiding my agenda: I believe with Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick theoretically gone, Mittelstadt is the correct pick in my amateur view. My arm can be twisted into picking Heiskanen, who is worthy of the hype when you watch him exit the defensive zone. But I also believe Gavin Bayreuther, Ludwig Bystrom, and free agents can help the left side complement a right side with the goods. On the other hand, I don’t believe anyone can replace Spezza, even in his twilight. And that’s not including Mittelstadt’s potential to play wing, which Dallas also lacks. He’s the cherished stone to kill two prospect-need birds.