Casey Mittelstadt isn’t the first player to torch high school hockey in the United States. In recent memory, star players have emerged out of Minnesota’s prestigious high school state championships to play in the NHL — Nick Leddy, Ryan McDonagh, Nick Bjugstad, and Paul Martin to name a few.
But few have taken that talent, and that skill set, and dominated in another league at the same age. After Bjugstad posted 60 points in 25 games in his final year in the MNHS (comparable numbers to Mittelstadt’s, albeit while playing on the same team as Jonny Brodzinski, a fifth-round pick of the Los Angeles Kings), he spent three seasons in college hockey before he emerged as a 38-point rookie with the Florida Panthers.
And scouts will question a player’s success in a weaker (relatively) league. Often, players have to prove themselves against best-on-best competition to earn the respect they deserve.
What stands out most about Mittelstadt, and separates him from a player like Bjugstad (who went 19th overall in his draft class) at the same age is that he has produced, with little help, as the best player in high school hockey and in the United States Hockey League, or USHL. His 64 points (21 goals, 43 assists) in 25 games with Eden Prairie High, are exceptional. He was Minnesota Mr. Hockey — awarded to the best senior in the state — for a reason.
But in the typically low-scoring USHL, it’s his 30 points (13 goals, 17 assists) in 24 games that stand out. Not only did Mittelstadt’s game translate well to a higher caliber league, but he was its best player and finished with the highest points per game clip in the league (1.25), eclipsing diminutive scorer Zach Solow (1.23) and potential 2018 first overall pick Andrei Svechnikov (1.21). This, on a team whose next leading scorer is a 21-year-old who finished 30th in points per game (0.82).
And he’s done it on the international stage too. At last year’s under-18 worlds, Mittelstadt finished fourth (behind elders Logan Brown and Clayton Keller as well as fellow 2017-eligible forward Kailer Yamamoto) on Team USA in scoring with nine points (four goals, five assists) in seven games. At Hlinka Memorial, he followed it up by tying with Yamamoto for the team lead in scoring with another seven points in four games.
In September, I wrote about Mittelstadt’s dominance at the All-American Prospects Game, too. There, he was named player of the game after picking up a pair of goals (including a beautiful quick finish off a reception from Yamamoto).
What’s more impressive, though, is how he does it: with translatable, dynamic NHL skills.
The first thing you notice while watching Mittelstadt, besides that he’s always the best player on the ice so he’s hard to miss, are his elite puck protection skills and the plays he makes while being aggressively checked. Mittelstadt has an uncanny ability to use his size and strength to protect the puck off the cycle while still converting on tough-to-make passes to the slot.
He’s also an exceptional skater and uses footwork to beat defenders wide or on cuts through the middle of the ice — he crosses over quickly and aggressively to dash across the offensive zone.
The second thing you notice is how well he handles the puck in tight. Mittelstadt finishes off quick rebound plays in tight like its routine, and often shoots low to create second opportunities for himself on a quick move to his forehand or backhand.
After a growth spurt last summer pushed Mittelstadt from 5-foot-11 to 6-foot-1, the hybrid centre-winger added strength to a game that already boasted high-end pace and speed and an ability to cleanly win possession in puck battles. His shot, too, improved and he added a heavy snapshot to an arsenal of offensive tools that already included a quick-release wrister.
Throw in an awareness of where he needs to be within a system to find success and hard back-checking and you’ve got a player with few discernible flaws. If Mittelstadt could grow in one area, it would be to turn his back to the play less often (he can get caught trying to flee the zone too early for an outlet reception).
Ultimately, though, Mittelstadt has proven himself dynamic in all three zones and capable of producing and dictating in several ways, an equal opportunity shooter and passer who finds open space or creates it.
Notice here, in the aforementioned All-American Prospects Game, the calmness Mittelstadt shows to go to his backhand and tuck the puck in the far side rather than attempting a quick redirect.
And again in this game with Green Bay, the way Mittelstadt drives the net and decisively finishes off the play (this time with the one-touch option when he recognizes the goalie is down, rather than going to his backhand):
Don’t worry, he can score from distance, too:
Mittelstadt has shown himself to be a surefire top-five talent in this class, and in the same breath as Gabe Vilardi behind the big two of Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick. His ability to dictate and drive play through the middle of the ice to high-danger areas makes him a fascinating prospect. After a year or two of fine-tuning his game with the University of Minnesota, don’t be surprised if he steps into the NHL as an impact first-year player.
Note: Scott Wheeler is a senior scout with scouting service Future Considerations. He also formerly scouted the NHL draft for McKeen’s Hockey. This is part of a series of 2017 NHL Draft profiles he’ll be writing for SB Nation. You can follow him at @scottcwheeler.