Mit­tel­stadt blazes own trail to pro ca­reer

Scorer split time be­tween USHL, high school team

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Tim Whelan @that­timwhe­lan Spe­cial for USA TO­DAY Sports Con­tribut­ing: Kevin Allen

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.”

BRUCE KLUCKHOHN, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Casey Mit­tel­stadt is glad he played high school hockey as a se­nior. He just wishes he had fin­ished with a state ti­tle.

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