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Off the top here I think it's important to establish that making great plays in the U18 Tournament and World Junior Summer Showcase does not automatically mean you will become an NHL superstar. There are countless examples of players who have put up huge numbers and performed in clutch moments for their national team that failed to make any meaningful impact in the NHL.
However, there is something about the way in which Casey Mittelstadt has performed at the national team level so far in his young career that stands out as something a little bit different. There are far smarter people than I in the game that can more eloquently describe what I am seeing in Mittelstadt but I will do my best to explain what I mean.
When you watch an NHL game most players tend to look pretty similar in how they play. It's the nature of the game, especially when you're dealing with the top 600 players in the world, so it makes sense that guys at this level will have somewhat similar playing styles. However there are select players who stand out as different even amongst the top 600 in the world. They're the players that catch your eye when they have the puck on their stick. They make the rest of the league look stiff in comparison to their apparent fluidity.
For me, some players that fall into this supposed "different" category include, McDavid, Patrick Kane, Eichel, Crosby, Seguin, Tarasenko, Malkin, Karlsson, and a few others.
There are extremely talented players like Benn, Getzlaf, Wheeler, Kessel, Toews etc. that do unbelievable things for their teams and are bonafide top tier players that every single team wants on their top line, but I think it's pretty clear that the "different" group I mentioned above stands out whenever they are on the ice, and manage to somehow make these top level guys look stiff in comparison.
Of what I have seen so far, Mittelstadt looks like he has the potential to fall into that category of players that somehow look slightly different when they have the puck. Now it's far to early to project exactly what kind of career he will have and far too bold for me to suggest he can come anywhere near approaching the numbers players like Kane and McDavid have put up, however the style in which Mittelstadt plays suggests he has the potential fall in to that "different" group rather than the "stiff" group
The TL;DR description that I feel best describes these players is, "A shifty skater with soft hands and a quick release."
The player he reminds me of most, so far, is Patrick Kane. Below are a few cherry picked examples of why I say that.
Quick release from the circle
Back hand in close
No look shot
Now, there is an argument to be made that you can make any player comparison if you cherry pick the right clips, and to that I say, you're 100% correct, but in the short time we've been able to watch him, Casey Mittelstadt is standing out in a way to me that very very few players ever have, especially with the Sabres, so I feel it's important to provide at least a few visual examples of what I'm seeing.
I think the best way to describe the thing that sets apart players in this elite category that Mittelstadt has shown signs of potentially finding himself in is that there is no wasted movement in anything they do with and without the puck. You rarely see these players spend time loading up their shot and telegraphing to the opponent what they intend to do. Each play is deliberate and intentional, which allows them to release their shot quicker than a goalie may have anticipated. It also allows them hold onto the puck longer and move in closer to the goalie which then forces the goaltender to make the first move, allowing this elite player to find an open space and utilize this quick release at the last second since their is no wasted movement in their shot.
The same can be said regarding the way these players move the puck to their teammates. It's like they see the game 3 seconds ahead of everyone else and are able make these incredible passing plays that no one else is able to see until it happens. Again, it's primarily due to their ability to limit the wasted movement and avoid telegraphing their intentions with the puck.
And finally the attribute that stands out the most when you watch just a few minutes of these elite level players is their skating. It's not that they are necessarily the fastest skaters on the ice, but they posses a combination of acceleration and agility that few players have. It's this feature that I think primarily contributes to the image in my mind of making other NHLers look stiff in comparison. The ability to accelerate and move side to side with the puck in an instant while on the ice with the best skaters in the world makes you stand out in a special way.
If you watched any of the World Junior Showcase a few weeks ago, Casey Mittelstadt instantly stood out on the ice simply because his skating was at different level relative to everyone else, which is incredible to think about given the fact that he's on the ice with the best players in the world in his age group. So to stand out from a group with that much talent is something special and a good sign for his potential future success in NHL.
I highly you suggest you watch this video of Casey Mittelstadt highlights at the U18 Tournament so you can visualize the attributes I outlined above.
When I lived in Nashville I got to watch a ton of Patrick Kane in person and every time he grabbed the puck you immediately got this feeling that something special could happen. It was terrifying as an adopted Preds fan to see this, but as a fan of capital "H" Hockey it was thrilling because when you've been fortunate enough to be around the game for most of your live like I have you kind of feel like you've seen it all. So when a player like Patrick Kane takes the puck and moves up the ice I find myself sliding to the edge of my seat anticipating something new happening, which in and of itself is a great feeling as a long time hockey fan who has "seen it all."
My hope is that Mittelstadt can provide a similar level of excitement to the game and so far he has shown glimpses of potentially doing just that.
It's impossible and frankly ridiculous to predict that an 18 year old Casey Mittelstadt will be the same kind of player as Patrick Kane in the NHL. There's every chance that he won't be able to translate his game to the NHL. Maybe his size will be a bigger issue than anticipated, maybe his speed doesn't continue to progress in NHL, maybe NHL defenders and goalies will be able to anticipate his next move better than players in his age group. But he clearly has the foundation of skill that, to me, few players posses and has the potential to be a special player for the Sabres and turn into a steal at 8th overall in the draft.