Four months before his Gophers debut, Casey Mittelstadt created a stir at the NHL combine when he couldn’t do a pull up and managed just one rep in the 150-pound bench press exercise.
Gophers coaches rolled their eyes, convinced it would be a different story once the 18-year-old entered their strength program.
“Our strength coach noticed right away that his shoulder was a little out of alignment,” coach Don Lucia said. “He got him fixed with manipulation, and [Mittelstadt] was able to do a half-dozen [pull ups] right after that.”
The Buffalo Sabres still made Mittelstadt the No. 8 overall pick in the June draft. And now, the only pullup talk is the way this freshman is hoisting the entire Gophers team with his electrifying playmaking ability.
Mittelstadt ranks second on the team with seven points (two goals, five assists), despite missing the Oct. 21 loss at North Dakota with an unspecified injury. He hopes to deliver far more thrills, starting with Friday’s home game against Michigan State.
“Obviously for my own expectations, I think it’s been somewhat of a slow start,” Mittelstadt said. “But we’re starting to really get going, especially as a team. And I think as we get better as a team, I’ll get better.”
The No. 5 Gophers (5-3) are coming off their first sweep last weekend against then-No. 9 Clarkson. Mittelstadt had the primary assist on three of Minnesota’s five goals in that series, including a deft saucer pass to Mike Szmatula on Saturday.
The more Lucia learns about Mittelstadt, the more the coach seems to like.
“What’s nice about him is he’s more competitive than I thought,” Lucia said. “He’s got a little of that Kyle Rau bulldog in him, that not everybody has, and that’s a real good ingredient to possess as an athlete.”
Rau averaged 41 points over four Gophers seasons and captained the 2014-15 squad. Like Rau, Mittelstadt is an Eden Prairie grad with a calm off-ice demeanor whose emotions burn during games.
“We had to clean up [Mittelstadt’s] language coming back to the bench,” Lucia said. “We addressed that because we’ve got the little kids back there. So we told him, ‘We know you’re upset, but let’s at least try to keep it PG-13.’ ”
Mittelstadt admits he can be his own biggest critic.
“I already put enough on myself, so anytime I try to add more, it’s probably not too much of a good thing,” Mittelstadt said.
The pressure on Mittelstadt has intensified, partly because the team’s top returning scorers have gotten off to slow starts. Tyler Sheehy, a first team All-American last season, missed one series because of an unspecified injury and has zero goals through six games. Szmatula, Tommy Novak and Leon Bristedt have one goal apiece.
“They’re the ones that have to start scoring for us,” Lucia said.
Meanwhile, the Gophers have come to rely on their “RPM Line,” featuring freshman Scott Reedy, sophomore Rem Pitlick and Mittelstadt. Pitlick leads the team with eight points (three goals, five assists) and his 21 shots on goal rank second to Mittelstadt’s 22.
Whenever the 6-foot, 201-pound Mittelstadt gets the puck, it looks like someone has hit the fast forward button on the game film, as he maneuvers with his lightning quick hands and feet.
“He’s got a great hockey mind,” Reedy said. “He might be deking a defender, but in the back of his head, he’s thinking where you are. So whether he’s looking at you or not, he can send the pass over, so you’ve just got to be ready for it.”
Lucia enjoys watching Mittelstadt so much he can snicker at the doubts cast at the combine.
Two weeks ago, North Dakota fans held up signs with Mittelstadt’s face attached to a weakling body and the words, “Can’t do a pull up!” Mittelstadt responded by setting up Pitlick for the first goal.
“You can’t teach the skill, you can’t teach the speed, you can’t teach the hockey sense,” Lucia said.
“Strength’s going to come because he’s more than willing to work at it.”