The Canucks appeared to have hit a home run with their selection of Elias Pettersson with the 5th overall pick in 2017. Time will still tell if Pettersson is a bona fide star in the NHL, but the early returns since being selected by the organization are extremely promising.
Three picks later, the Buffalo Sabres took Minnesota born centre, Casey Mittelstadt.
Despite everything that Pettersson did in Sweden last season, there were still quite a few pundits expecting Mittelstadt to be the leader of this rookie forward class despite there being a few signs that likely wasn’t going to happen.
It was an easy conclusion to think that Mittelstadt would hit the ground running after being named the World Junior MVP and then five points in six games to close out the NHL season last year.
This season, Mittelstadt has one assist in nine games with the Sabres and seems to be struggling to make any sort of impact on a nightly basis. It’s understandable given that he is 19 years old and being asked to be their second line centre.
His struggles aren’t shocking to many though.
Usually, with these types of discussions, it focuses on one player because they present the easiest avenue to dissect everything in front of us. With that in mind, Mittelstadt is likely going to be a really good NHL’r behind Jack Eichel but just might not end up being the superstar that many expected.
Here are some of the issues in the way everyone looks at prospects that have led to Mittelstadt being overhyped.
Data is just one piece of analysis when looking at hockey players but generally if there are multiple red flags in the data, there is a reason.
During his draft season, Mittelstadt played the majority of the season in High School with a small sample of USHL games. His limited USHL play produced a high success rate among cohorts but it was only half a season of play there.
He was (and still is) a top prospect from that draft class but there were some concerns that he may not be an impact player based on the information at the time, and that hasn’t really changed.
Mittelstadt made the leap to the NCAA and played the 2017-18 season at the University of Minnesota. He was okay, finishing second in points, trailing Rem Pitlick. He was tied for 97th in points and 72nd in points per game in the NCAA, so it’s fair to say that he didn’t exactly dominate. (Adam Gaudette had 60 points in 38 games.)
The pGPS data backs that up:
With 20.1% expected likelihood of becoming a regular NHLer, and an expected production of 40.2 points per 82 games based on that cohort.
Jeremy Davis has added a new element to pGPS; it is still a work in progress but allows an insight into the breakdown of expected roles based on his statistical profile.
Based solely on his production, ignoring all other factors, Mittelstadt had a slightly lower chance of being a depth or fringe NHL’r than being a regular. Players that shared his production in the NCAA also had a 49% chance of not making it to the NHL at all – obviously Mittelstadt has made to the NHL, but this underscores how pedestrian his college numbers were last season.
Taking out who the player is and solely looking at the production of a freshman in collegiate hockey with limited production, you would just assume they would go back to college for sophomore season and look to build off of it. That’s fine, it happens all the time. Players take time to adjust to the higher QoC (quality of competition) and QoT (Quality of teammates) and take a bit to work their way up from there.
Ignoring that kind of data and expecting a player to break through a glass ceiling is something that happens all too often. If it happens once with one player, everyone points to that success and assumes it will replicate. When in reality, the outlier is the outlier for a reason.
Another common pitfall in prospect analysis is being wow’d by sample sizes such as tournaments or playoffs and then having that leave an impact on your analysis months later.
In the case of Mittelstadt, he was dazzling at the World Juniors in Buffalo and had been part of the fantastic top line with Kailer Yamamoto and Logan Brown at the U18’s and Ivan Hlinka tournaments.
The Sabres centre was very good in all of those tournaments and was rightfully named the WJHC MVP. He was that good.
The problem is that most people aren’t building off those viewings, instead relying on them for the majority of their analysis. He was really good in the ‘best on best’ thus he can replicate that play with regularity.
The same can be said about a small number of games to close out an NHL season.
You can’t get mesmerized by a handful of games and then expect that to continue. Players get hot, they go on cold streaks, they get placed on bad lines, they get cushy deployment, or good things just happen on the ice from time to time.
Focusing on Highlights
Casey Mittelstadt is gonna be ? this year: pic.twitter.com/b2CHRBOj5c
— From The Faceoff (@FromTheFaceoff) September 19, 2018
When projecting prospects into the NHL, you want them to have skills that separate them from the pack and the highlight packs that showcase those skills. Mittelstadt was a very good puck distributor and has quick hands that allowed him to constantly keep the puck moving.
It’s easy to see those things carrying forward to the other levels of hockey and assuming that there wouldn’t be any hiccups. I was guilty of doing the same thing in the past, and it can be one of the hardest things to differentiate.
The concern is that Mittelstadt is a perimeter play-maker and now that he is in the NHL, he isn’t able to exploit the breakdowns in his opponents coverage. That issue is part of why he has struggled to put up points, and with that in mind, looking back at any video (aside from the highlights), you can see where those issues may lie at higher levels.
There could be that one or two plays in a game that stands out because it was making the rounds on twitter but if those are few and far between because of the way they play, once they get to the NHL, those highlights could get snuffed out completely.
Dazzling junior prospects don’t always cut it in the NHL because their flaws are exploited.
Being the Contrarian
It’s okay to have the same opinion as others.
Ideally, you aren’t falling into a hive mind and thinking the same thing as your peers but if there are similar ideas, it’s okay to agree with them.
In this case, it was okay to think Pettersson was the best forward prospect to enter the NHL this season. He did things that have never been done before in the history of the Swedish Hockey League and someone like Mittelstadt did good things in the NCAA.
There is a large difference in being okay in college hockey and setting countless records. It’s okay to think that Rasmus Dahlin will be better because of things he was doing as a 17-year-old. You don’t have to have him ranked second in the draft class or have him lower than Mittelstadt in the prospect rankings, just to be different.
In this case, it’s okay to not be so high on Mittelstadt just because others are rightfully projecting others ahead of him. There were warnings that he wouldn’t be able to make a tangible impact.
Obviously, sample size plays into his NHL career thus far but the overriding theme here is that it isn’t surprising that he didn’t bust down the doors thus far.
Many people in the prospect world were under the same impression on Mittelstadt. That he will likely be a good NHL player in a few years but likely won’t live up to the mantle of being the best prospect in hockey. He wasn’t even the best player from his draft class to be entering the NHL this season and isn’t even the 5th best player from that draft class at this moment.
But there were a few that firmly believed he would be a game breaker despite the easily identifiable issues.
His case is a great way to examine how prospects can get hyped up when it isn’t valid. One person is high on the player, then another, then another and so on, when there are concerns that can’t be ignored.
This isn’t to point fingers at one or two specific people who missed on their prognosis, I mean Yahoo Hockey had him projected as the 84th player to start the season.
Everyone makes mistakes but there are ways to get better at your analysis. There are a multitude of avenues of information that can be combined to make the most informed decision at the time, the analyst just needs to be open to it.
It’s not like Mittelstadt struggles were a sure thing but it’s pretty clear through the avenues outlined above, it shouldn’t be shocking in the slightest. Nor should it have been said this summer that he was the best prospect in hockey.