TORONTO – Hope is about to board an airplane bound for Buffalo.
Casey Mittelstadt made the decision to leave college after just one year when he inked a three-year, entry-level contract Monday with the Buffalo Sabres, who drafted the hotly-anticipated prospect eighth overall in 2017.
The 19-year-old centre should join the club Tuesday and could make his NHL debut — and burn Year 1 of his contract — as early as Thursday versus the Detroit Red Wings.
"I think he can make an impact right away," said Sabres centre Ryan O’Reilly, receiving the "awesome" news after his pre-game skate in Toronto. "This is a good look. It’s only going to make our team better."
Like most hockey fans, O’Reilly was wowed by Mittelstadt’s skill during Team USA’s bronze medal-winning performance at the IIHF World Junior Championship in January. In that best-on-best contest, Mittelstadt put up 11 points in seven games, claiming the tournament’s MVP trophy and teasing the host city of what might be.
"You watch his little plays, his shiftiness, the way he moves with the puck. Those little plays are definitely way beyond most guys’ [ability]," O’Rielly said. "Hopefully I get to play with him."
Coach Phil Housley believes the six-foot-one, 201-pound teenager’s speed will enable him to adapt to the bigger, stronger, meaner bodies of a man’s league.
"He’ll see another level of speed for sure, but he plays the game at a high speed," explained Housley, who gushed over the kid’s hockey sense, intelligence and creativity. "By using his speed, he’ll be able create separation and get away from checks.
"Shooting — he gets his shot off quick. His first three or four strides out the gate are really good — that’s how he creates separation. And he has vision to make plays."
Mittelstadt scored 11 goals and 19 assists in 34 games with the University of Minnesota and made the Big Ten All-Freshman Team.
With O’Reilly and 21-year-old Jack Eichel both locked up long-term, if Mittelstadt can live up to his promise, the Sabres — seemingly forever stuck in rebuild mode — could be set up the middle of the ice.
"It’s part of the future," said Eichel, who also bounced to the pros after one NCAA year. "High skill level and somebody we can use."
Housley wants to insert Mittelstadt into his lineup as soon as possible, though he has yet to decide which line or even which position to place him. Do you ease him in on the wing, like Dylan Larkin and Tyler Seguin? Or throw him right into the fire like Eichel and Auston Matthews?
Regardless, the arrival of Mittelstadt — and the very fact he signed — is a welcome good-news story for a loyal fan base that has watched the Sabres sink to dead last in the standings and mustre just two goals in their past four games (all losses). Their offence is the weakest in the league.
"We’re excited to bring some youth and exuberance into our lineup," said Kyle Okposo, also noting Sunday’s signing of 21-year-old defence prospect Will Borgen.
“[Mittelstadt] is going to get some hype — he deserves it,” Kyle Okposo said. “The team has to shield him from it as best it can.”
A fellow Minnesota native, Okposo knows the Edina Prairie product well. They scrimmaged together with a group of pros on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the off-season.
"He was able to take over the game," Okposo beamed. "That’s the highest pace I play in the summer, and he was really impressive there. Guys on the bench were saying how special a player he is and how special his mind is for the game."
Having made a mid-season leap from the Golden Gophers himself, to the Islanders back in 2008, Okposo remembers vividly the wracked nerves Mittelstadt must have.
"It’s a whirlwind. You’re realizing your dreams. You have this life in college, you just start getting comfortable there — he’s only been there one year — then you turn pro and you have to get used to a whole new thing. I don’t think he’s been away from home, really," Okposo said.
"Joining a team [76 games in] and not knowing anybody, it’s a tough thing. Guys learn, they adjust, and at the end of the day it’s just hockey."