Casey Mittelstadt came to training camp in January with a fresh outlook on his career born from lessons he admits he learned the hard way.
Mittelstadt spent one year playing collegiately at the University of Minnesota after being drafted by the Sabres with the No. 8 overall pick in 2017. From there he jumped right into the NHL, still only 19 years old at the start of his rookie campaign in 2018.
He already had 114 NHL games on his resume by the time he was demoted to the AHL in December 2019, midway through his second season. He was commended for his approach at the time of the reassignment, which he treated as a chance to develop. But the experience was eye opening.
He realized he had taken his spot in the NHL for granted.
"It was a good lesson for me to go home and realize the amount of work I have to put in every day, and the things that I have to do away from the rink to get myself ready to play," Mittelstadt said. "I think that was the biggest difference more than anything. I think when you do that, you get in a zone and start playing well. You get out what you put into it."
Video: LOCKER CLEANOUT: Mittelstadt
Mittelstadt arrived for the season eager to put his newfound approach into practice, only to have his fortitude put to the test. A shortened camp absent of preseason games left little opportunity for players to compete for lineup spots. Mittelstadt began the year on the taxi squad and only played two games prior to Feb. 22. When he did play, it was on the wing.
Mittelstadt credits development coach Matt Ellis (who later became an assistant on Don Granato's interim staff) with helping him through that time, keeping his skills sharp and his mindset positive on days when 8 a.m. taxi skates began to take their toll. Even in those skates, Mittelstadt felt like he had reached a new level.
"I had a couple of tough days," he said. "Just coming to the rink every day and working hard. It was kind of a weird scenario because I wasn't playing, but I knew that I felt the best that I've been."
Mittelstadt took advantage when opportunity came knocking in March. Granato prioritized giving ice time and high-leverage experiences to young players upon taking over in his interim role. An injury to Jack Eichel and the departure of Eric Staal via trade left a spot at center for the taking.
He began to see more ice time as the team navigated its way through the end of an 18-game winless streak and scored a goal during the victory in Philadelphia that snapped the skid. That game began run in which Mittelstadt scored nine goals and 17 points over the final 22 games of the season.
Expanded over 82 contests, he was performing at a 33-goal, 63-point pace while seeing regular time against opponents' top lines.
Video: Season Highlights: Casey Mittelstadt
"He might the guy that I thought took the most strides this year, and I was very proud of him for that," alternate captain Kyle Okposo said. "He started the year and he was on the taxi squad but I knew that he had put the work in and he was continuing to put the work in, and it paid off.
"Just the confidence that he was playing with at the end of the year was just awesome to see. He's only going to keep getting better. I know that that drive and that hunger is going to be there this summer to get better and he's going to come back and be a good player for us."
General manager Kevyn Adams singled out Mittelstadt as one of the highlights of the young core that had a chance to grow together during the final month of the season, a group that included fellow first-round picks Dylan Cozens and Tage Thompson at forward.
Adams also revealed that Mittelstadt's season began with a challenge.
"I challenged Casey before the season to prove it, and to earn a spot, and to show what he's capable of doing," Adams said. "And all he did was show up from Day 1 of training camp with a great attitude and put the work in.
"And then when he did get the opportunity, he kicked the door open."