BUFFALO, N.Y. – When he’s walking onto the Sabres’ chartered airplane, about to jet off to the team’s next destination during his rookie season, that’s when it sinks in for center Casey Mittelstadt that he’s really in the NHL.
“I was riding on a bus a couple of years ago going to Edina,” the Eden Prairie native said. “That’s been one of the biggest differences for me.”
After wrapping up his high school career as the 2017 Minnesota Mr. Hockey, Mittelstadt logged just one season with the Gophers before signing an entry-level contract with Buffalo.
And although his first full-length season in the league has been a bumpy transition at times, Mittelstadt doesn’t regret leaving college early to become a pro.
“I’m very happy with where I’m at,” he said. “It’s been a fun year so far for all of us.”
Before taking on the hometown Wild on Tuesday at KeyBank Center, Mittelstadt boasted 16 points through 51 games — seven coming on goals.
The 20-year-old didn’t register his first goal until the 11th game of the season, a sluggish start in which Mittelstadt was adapting to playing a 200-foot game that the NHL requires, but he’s been much more effective of late and started Tuesday alongside 30-goal scorer Jeff Skinner and former Wild winger Jason Pominville.
“He’s really worked on his defensive-zone awareness and really make the right reads, help his defense out down low,” Sabres coach Phil Housley said. “I think his game has really come, especially before the break and even in these games after the break, I really like where his game’s at.”
One of six Sabres under 23 years old, including captain Jack Eichel and last year’s first overall draft pick Rasmus Dahlin, Mittelstadt has peers he can lean on who are also settling into the NHL. He also has a mentor in winger Kyle Okposo, who left the Gophers program in the middle of his second season to begin his pro career.
“I just kind of tell him to stay confident and make sure he always believes in himself,” the St. Paul native said. “I think that’s a really big thing that can waver a bit if you go through some rough patches and you’re not really used to that.”
And going through that process is exactly where Mittelstadt wants to be.
“I’ve gotten a little more comfortable and the game has started to slow down and once it starts to slow down, it helps out a lot,” he said. “Obviously, we need some scoring help. So I try to be that guy and help the team out wherever I can.”
After watching last weekend, defenseman Anthony Bitetto drew into the lineup against the Sabres — his first appearance since he was claimed off waivers from the Predators Jan. 5.
Bitetto played on the left side of Brad Hunt on the third pairing.
“My mind-set is just to compete,” said Bitetto, who described his style as a physical defender who looks to create offense when possible. “I don’t think you should be given anything, and I think I want to earn it and prove that I can play and stay in this league.”
It was Bitetto’s first game since Jan. 4 and to accommodate his addition to the lineup, the Wild healthy scratched rookie Nick Seeler for the first time this season.
“He hasn’t had a rest,” coach Bruce Boudreau said of Seeler. “He plays awful hard. He hasn’t played a lot of minutes lately. But … sometimes it doesn’t hurt to watch a game.”
• The Wild will honor Joe Mauer next Tuesday when the Flyers visit Xcel Energy Center. Players will wear custom Mauer No. 7 jerseys during pregame warmups that will be auctioned off to benefit Crescent Cove and the Minnesota Wild Foundation. Mauer, who retired Nov. 15 after a 15-year career with the Twins, will take part in a ceremonial puck drop before the game.
• With center Eric Fehr (sick) missing Tuesday’s game, veteran Matt Hendricks centered the fourth line.