Casey Mittelstadt is expected to be taken in the first round of the NHL Draft on Friday night in Chicago, perhaps within the first 15 picks.
The trek to that moment for the two-time American Family Insurance All-USA Boys Hockey Player of the Year was not without detractors. And it had little to do with the magic show that Mittelstadt, the No. 3 North American skater in the draft per NHL Central Scouting, put on each time he took the ice.
“He handled it with a lot of poise,” Casey’s father, Tom, told USA TODAY Sports. “He just really got bombarded by a lot of people. Then you add in high school hockey, taking a lot of slashes and other stuff that happened on the ice. I’m proud of him in that sense, of how he’s handled this year, more than anything else.”
After finishing his junior year at Eden Prairie (Minn.) High last spring, Mittelstadt had several options in front of him for where he could spend the 2016-2017 hockey season. He could graduate early and enroll at the University of Minnesota, getting a jumpstart on his time with the Gophers. He could play for the Green Bay (Wis.) Gamblers of the United States Hockey League (USHL). Or, the rarer move in the bunch would be to play his senior season at Eden Prairie.
He chose the latter. Well, the latter two, actually. He started the winter in the USHL, played a high school season, then finished up back in the USHL.
“I’ve had the same teammates since I was four or five years old,” Casey Mittelstadt recently told the Hockey News. “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.”
That Mittelstadt played high school hockey this season will make him an anomaly among NHL draft picks. In the seven rounds of the 2016 draft, only six players who skated for U.S. high schools or prep schools in 2015-16 were selected. The highest was Casey Staum, a defenseman from Hill-Murray in Minnesota who was chosen in the fifth round (No. 124 overall) by the Montreal Canadiens.
Mittelstadt’s selection is expected to be the highest by a U.S.-born high school or prep school player since center Cristoval Nieves was selected by the New York Rangers at No. 29 in 2012. Nieves, from Baldwinsville, N.Y., played the 2011-12 season at the Kent School in Connecticut.
“When you think about Casey going back to Eden Prairie, it’s something he wanted for himself and his teammates,” said Craig Button, the former Calgary Flames general manager who is now an analyst for the NHL Network and TSN. “You only get your high school years once. He wanted to lead them to a state championship. They made the semifinals, but it was a good run. I love players who, when they commit to something, they’re all in. I don’t know how anyone wouldn’t want that.”To understand why Casey Mittelstadt made the choice he did, you need a baseline comprehension of high school hockey in Minnesota. What Texas is to football and what Indiana is to basketball, Minnesota is to hockey.
Even so, the choice to return for his senior year of high school wasn’t a slam dunk. Or, more aptly, a loose rebound in front with the goalie out of position.
“My wife and I probably felt that he should have gone that way, going to Minnesota early and getting an extra year of college under his belt,” Tom Mittelstadt said. “He had proven he can play at this level. But we also said that whatever he decided, we’re all in.
“Once he said that’s what he was going to do, we said, ‘Let’s go.'”
So it was that, after playing 16 games for Green Bay in the USHL, Mittelstadt joined his high school brethren in a pursuit of a state title. Oh, but before he hit the ice again with his lifelong buddies, Mittelstadt was leading the USHL with 21 points (8 goals, 13 assists).
The 6-foot, 200-pound center then picked up where he left off for Eden Prairie, bringing the team to the Minnesota Class AA state semifinals before it fell to eventual state champion Grand Rapids (Minn.), 3-2. Even after falling short of the season’s ultimate goal, the next day, Mittelstadt scored the 82nd and final goal of his three-year varsity career in a 3-2 win against Lakeville South (Minn.) in the third-place game.
Over 30 games, Mittelstadt scored 23 goals and dished out 49 assists for an average of 2.4 points a contest. He scored a point in all but two games and he had multiple assists 14 times. For his efforts, he won the state’s Mr. Hockey award and was the Star Tribune’s All-Metro Player of the Year.
After the season, Mittelstadt took to social media to say that not wining a state title “will go down as the biggest regret of my entire life” but noted “this has been the best year of my life.”
After the high school season ended, Mittelstadt then returned to Green Bay, scoring five more goals and dishing out four more assists over the final eight games. His USHL total came to 30 points (13 goals, 17 assists) in 24 games.
“In each rise of competition, Mittelstadt has played well,” Jim Johannson, USA Hockey’s Assistant Executive Director of Hockey Operations, told USA TODAY Sports. “He’s a fluid, strong skater who plays with big pace.”
“I think he will be a Top 2 center at the NHL level. He plays a 200-foot game. He is a hybrid player.”
The fact that he sandwiched a high school season between two stints in the same USHL season is no doubt being analyzed by teams thinking of taking Mittelstadt. Does his choice take away anything from his draft status?
“In my view, it shouldn’t,” Button said. “Where a player plays, it shouldn’t matter, and I feel very strongly about this. You’re assessing a player’s skills, and how those will translate to the National Hockey League. If you’re smart, quick, competitive, it doesn’t matter what level you are coming from. Casey’s skills are at a high level, NHL quality.”
Added Tom Mittelstadt, “I think he talked to a lot of people for advice, and they said it’s the last time to play hockey where you can enjoy it and it’s not a job.”
Want a wild coincidence? On Friday, June 8, Mittelstadt graduated with his Eden Prairie classmates at the same venue where he plans to suit up for the Golden Gophers, Mariucci Arena. He has already moved onto the Minneapolis campus and begun workouts.
Just two weeks after donning a cap and gown, he will likely be wearing an NHL team’s jersey up on stage.
“I think he’s a top-10 pick,” said Button.
“I hope he goes to an organization that has a good group, good people character-wise,” said Tom Mittelstadt. “One that treats its players right.”
It will be the latest milestone in a whirlwind year for Mittelstadt, the teenager with a game that travels well – no matter the level.
Contributing: Kevin Allen