Mittelstadt blazes own trail to pro career
Scorer split time between USHL, high school team
Casey Mittelstadt is expected to be taken in the first round of the NHL draft Friday in Chicago, perhaps even among the top 15 picks. He could become the highest selected U.S.-born high school or prep school player since 2012 (center Cristoval Nieves by the New York Rangers at No. 29).
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 for where he could spend the 2016-17 hockey season: graduate early and enroll at the University of Minnesota, getting a jump start on his time with the Gophers; play for the Green Bay (Wis.) Gamblers of the United States Hockey League; or play his senior season at Eden Prairie.
He chose the latter two. He started the winter in the USHL, played a high school season, then finished back in the USHL.
“I’ve had the same teammates since I was 4 or 5 years old,” 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 HillMurray in Minnesota who was chosen in the fifth round (No. 124 overall) by the Montreal Canadiens.
“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 Mittelstadt made that choice, you need a baseline comprehension of high school hockey in Minnesota. Think Texas football and Indiana basketball. Minnesota is the “State of Hockey.”
Even so, the choice to return for his senior year wasn’t easy.
“My wife and I probably felt that he should have gone ... to Minnesota early and (gotten) 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.’ ”
After playing 16 games for Green Bay in the USHL, Mittelstadt joined his high school brethren in pursuit of a state title. Mittelstadt had been leading the USHL with 21 points (eight goals, 13 assists).
The 6-0, 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 3-2.
Over 30 games, Mittelstadt scored 23 goals and dished out 49 assists for an average of 2.4 points per contest. He scored a point in all but two games and had multiple assists 14 times. For his efforts, Mittelstadt won the state’s Mr. Hockey award.
After the season, Mittelstadt took to social media to say that not winning 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.”
“In my eyes, it was all about another five months with the kids I love and grew up with,” he wrote. “When you all fall in love with the same game together, it makes it that much more special and that much harder.”
Once the high school season ended, Mittelstadt 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.”
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.”
Casey Mittelstadt is glad he played high school hockey as a senior. He just wishes he had finished with a state title.