With training camp opening in just under two weeks, the Sabres still don’t have a proven second-line center on their roster.
Jack Eichel is clearly entrenched as the Sabres top-line center, and it appears that Johan Larsson will be getting another crack at the fourth line center role.
That leaves Evan Rodrigues, and Casey Mittelstadt as the two internal options to compete for the role of Sabres’ second center.
Mittelstadt is the offensively gifted player with all of the hype, but he didn’t appear to be ready for top-6 minutes last year. Rodrigues is the reliable two-way center who has excelled in a bottom-6 role, but is he capable of being a 2C on a contending team?
Mittelstadt was hyped up as one of the best prospects in all of hockey, and after an impressive 6-game stint at the end of 2017-18 the hype only intensified.
While he flashed his talents at times last season, there’s no getting around it…2018-19 wasn’t a success for Casey.
At 5v5 Mittelstadt was an average player, he scored nine goals and added six assists for 15 total points. He also recorded a CF% of 48.45 and a SCF% of 45.74.
Phil Housley did his best to shelter Mittelstadt last season, but it didn’t work out as planned.
He had 424 zone starts (natural stat trick), and 215 of those starts were in the offensive zone (50.7%), while 156 were in the neutral zone and 53 starts were in the defensive zone.
The coaching staff handled Mittelstadt correctly for the most part, but he couldn’t translate it into point production.
On special teams it was a different story, Mittelstadt looked very comfortable, the extra ice allowed him to use his skillset and take advantage of the extra space he was given.
There isn’t a doubt in my mind that he has the ability to be a play driving center in the NHL, he’s quick, is great with the puck on his stick and is very good in transition.
In the games I live tracked last season he averaged 2.0 controlled breakouts per game and 3.42 controlled entries per game.
His offensive ability, and special teams ability are evident…but he needs to improve his all-around game to become the true second-line center the Sabres drafted him to be.
Potential 2nd line
Pairing Mitts with Johansson and Reinhart gives him two veteran skilled players to play with.
All three players have exceptional passing ability and would thrive in the offensive zone, with Reinhart possessing the two-way game that the line would need to succeed.
Every player on this line has the ability to breakout with ease, and are effective in the transition game, giving the Sabres a deadly offensive-minded second line they’ve been lacking for a number of years.
The other internal option for 2C is forward Evan Rodrigues, a player that probably never imagined he would be a consistent top-6 forward in the NHL.
Rodrigues is nowhere near as skilled offensively as Mittelstadt, but he’s a very gifted passer with the ability to put the puck in the back of the net when he’s in the high danger areas.
A player once regarded as “Jack Eichel’s BU teammate” has become a very valuable player in the Sabres organization. He has been a great 5v5 bottom-6 forward, and a very effective penalty killer over the last two seasons.
Rodrigues’ 5v5 numbers from 2018-19 are better than Mittelstadt’s, he posted a 51.59 CF% and a 50.14 SCF% while scoring 21 of his 29 points.
Unlike Mittelstadt, Rodrigues was relied on to play tougher minutes…of his 559 zone starts at 5v5 only 29.3% (164) were in the offensive zone, while 37.56% (210) were in the defensive zone.
If the Sabres went with Rodrigues as their 2C, they would have a player who is reliable in both ends but would be sacrificing the offensive potential that one would normally expect from a second-line center.
The issue with Rodrigues is he isn’t a long-term 2C, although he is a very valuable player within the organization, the Sabres shouldn’t expect him to be a consistent top-6 forward.
Potential 2nd line
Rodrigues is a great two-way player, but he needs two high powered offensive players on his wing if he’s going to slot in as a top-6 player.
In this line, Rodrigues has the best wingers the Sabres have to offer…although Jack Eichel would be losing his top winger, it’s proven he can produce with anyone on his wing.
With this as a second-line the Sabres would have a line that can compete offensively, is capable defending in their own zone and cause opponents fits with their ability to draw penalties while transitioning to offence.
The reality is that neither are a perfect solution to the Sabres problem, but unless a Ristolainen trade brings in outside help or Reinhart gets another shot at C the Sabres don’t have any other options to start 2019-2020.
I’ve debated internally about this, and although Rodrigues is a more reliable option for the Sabres, it’s impossible to ignore Casey’s offensive potential.
There will be more growing pains for Mittelstadt, but with his high draft status and offensive abilities he deserves first crack at the job.
Rodrigues is a perfect bottom-6 center has thrived in that role throughout his career, forcing him into a bigger role wouldn’t be a great idea, it makes more sense for him to continue in his current role.