CHICAGO - What was billed as an unpredictable first round lived up to the hype. That is at least if you ask Casey Mittelstadt, who watched in uncertainty as names ticked off the board at United Center one-by-one until Jason Botterill finally announced that the Buffalo Sabres had selected him with the eighth pick on Friday night.
Mittelstadt had met with the Sabres while he was in Buffalo for the NHL Scouting Combine earlier this month, but even that didn't quell his uncertainty.
"To be honest, I really wasn't sure. You go to the combine and you get some easy interviews, some hard interviews," Mittelstadt said, donning his Sabres sweater for the first time. "It's really hard to tell. No one really gives you [an indication] one way or the other. I really had no idea, but I was thrilled to go here."
But really, could there be a more fitting pick for an organization that just recently hired a Minnesota high school legend as its head coach than the Minnesota boy who chose to return to Eden Prairie High as a senior last season for one last shot at a state title? Mittelstadt was greeted by Phil Housley on stage, and meeting him was enough to bring a smile to his face.
"That's awesome," he said. "I just met him for the first time five minutes ago. Being able to meet him was obviously an honor. He's done pretty much everything you can in hockey and being from Minny is just kind of a cherry on top."
Video: 1-on-1 with Casey Mittelstadt
Mittelstadt, a center, took a road rarely traveled when he chose to sacrifice time in junior hockey to stay at Eden Prairie. He scored 64 points in just 25 games, sometimes having three players assigned to defend him at once. He won the Mr. Hockey Award as the state's top player, but his team fell short of the state title he had coveted.
Read: Allure of high school title had strong pull for Mittelstadt
His high school season was bookended by short stints for Green Bay of the USHL, a transition he said, quite frankly, wasn't all that difficult. He was relieved to find he'd only be covered by one man as opposed to three, and he scored 30 points in 24 games.
At season's end, he was the No. 3 ranked skater on NHL Central Scouting Service's list of North American prospects. Kris Baker of SabresProspects.com ranked him at the No. 3 prospect overall.
Baker's 31: Mittelstadt has top-six potential
"While Mittelstadt has cemented his top-six forward projection at the NHL level with his vision and sense," Baker said, "he has also made a mark as a fierce competitor with his ability to pressure the puck, battle along the walls, and simply do what it takes to be a difference maker in all three zones for the full 60 minutes.
Mittelstadt describes himself as a "two-way center with offensives upside," whose best attribute is his ability to use vision and creativity to make the players around him better. Next year, he'll look to add size and strength when he plays his first collegiate season at the University of Minnesota.
Beyond that, he has a chance to one day play for a Minnesota legend in Housley and alongside one of the of top American players in the League (in Mittelstadt's own words) in Jack Eichel, which Mittelstadt said would be an honor.
But for now, he'll enjoy this night with the people who brought him here: his parents, neither of whom played hockey but both of whom supported him, his brothers and his great-grandmother, who he says is like a second mother to him. Then, his focus turns back to hockey.
"I'm happy to go to Buffalo, it's a great place to play," he said. "They have a really good team up there already so it's definitely an honor.
"… Me and my family, we're going to stay here and soak it all in."