Casey Mittelstadt learned firsthand how a little time spent in the AHL can go a long way.
Mittelstadt jumped straight to the NHL after one season at the University of Minnesota. He had already played 114 games for Buffalo when he was reassigned to Rochester midway through his second campaign in December 2019.
We know the rest. Mittelstadt embraced his role in Rochester and parlayed it into his best offseason. He carried the pro habits he had developed into last season, working diligently with the taxi squad to stay ready until opportunity knocked in the second half.
So, Mittelstadt spoke from experience when he discussed the benefits of Buffalo’s decision to send JJ Peterka to Rochester to begin his first North American season.
“I hope he doesn’t view it as a bad thing and he goes down and plays well, because he’s going to be here for a long time,” Mittelstadt said.
The Sabres assigned Peterka to Rochester in advance of the 5 p.m. deadline for NHL teams to submit their 23-man regular-season rosters on Monday. Defenseman Casey Fitzgerald was also reassigned to the Amerks, leaving the Sabres with a group of 14 forwards, seven defensemen, and two goaltenders.
Peterka had three goals and an assist during five preseason games, the most of any Sabres player. On top of his offense, the 19-year-old impressed Sabres coach Don Granato with his ability to learn on the fly.
Ultimately, Granato said the decision to start Peterka in the AHL came down to the amount of ice time and special teams opportunities he will have with the Amerks. Granato said he expects to see both Peterka and Fitzgerald in Sabres uniforms this season.
“[Peterka] is a big part of what we have going,” Granato said. “I mentioned many times during camp, these are our final guys. We’re going to use them all during the year. JJ will be in that mix, there’s no doubt in my mind. … It’s a different hockey experience for him. We look at that as a tremendous opportunity.”
With Fitzgerald and Peterka set to join the Amerks, here is a positional breakdown of the Sabres’ 23-man roster for opening night.
Forwards (14): Rasmus Asplund, Anders Bjork, Drake Caggiula, Dylan Cozens, Cody Eakin, Zemgus Girgensons, John Hayden, Vinnie Hinostroza, Casey Mittelstadt, Kyle Okposo, Victor Olofsson, Arttu Ruotsalainen, Jeff Skinner, Tage Thompson
The forward group features many of the same young players who saw increased roles under Granato last season, including Asplund, Bjork, Cozens, Mittelstadt, and Thompson. Hinostroza was added to a list of returning veterans that includes Girgensons, Okposo, and Skinner.
Granato has stuck with a top line of Skinner, Mittelstadt, and Hinostroza since uniting the trio midway through the third preseason game. The Sabres held a 69.64-percent share of shot attempts at 5-on-5 with that line on the ice during three exhibitions.
The Sabres spent the preseason evaluating options at center beyond Mittelstadt. Thompson, a career winger, will open the season playing the middle after showing promise at the position during the back half of the preseason schedule. Cozens and Eakin were the other centers at practice on Monday.
Here’s how the forwards lined up Monday (including Peterka, who practiced prior to his reassignment):
53 Jeff Skinner – 37 Casey Mittelstadt – 29 Vinnie Hinostroza
74 Rasmus Asplund – 72 Tage Thompson – 71 Victor Olofsson
28 Zemgus Girgensons – 20 Cody Eakin – 21 Kyle Okposo
96 Anders Bjork – 24 Dylan Cozens – 91 Drake Caggiula
77 JJ Peterka – 25 Arttu Ruotsalainen – 15 John Hayden
Defensemen (7): Jacob Bryson, Will Butcher, Rasmus Dahlin, Robert Hagg, Henri Jokiharju, Colin Miller, Mark Pysyk
The defense corps is headlined by the young duo of Dahlin and Jokiharju, both of whom figure to take on larger roles after spending the final month of last season playing top-pair minutes.
Dahlin said after signing a three-year contract at the start of camp that he wants to be counted on every second he is at the rink. Jokiharju expressed an appetite for more ice time. The duo was used on the penalty kill during the preseason, something Granato said we could see more of moving forward.
The rest of the defense is a mix of old and new. Returning are 23-year-old Jacob Bryson, who earned a spot after appearing in 38 games as a rookie with Buffalo last season, and veteran Colin Miller.
Butcher, Hagg, and Pysyk were offseason additions who come to Buffalo with something to prove.
Butcher offered to play as much as possible during the preseason after being scratched for long portions of last season with New Jersey. Hagg, a physical defender, sees this fresh start as an opportunity to make good on untapped offensive upside. Pysyk hopes to settle into a full-time role on defense after seeing time at forward during each of the past two seasons.
Goaltenders (2): Craig Anderson and Dustin Tokarski
The Sabres entered camp with a four-man competition at goaltender. Anderson was an early frontrunner to earn a job on merit of experience. The 41-year-old ranks fourth among active goaltenders with 652 regular-season games on his resume.
Anderson was steady during his two preseason appearances, including an 18-save effort in Buffalo’s 3-1 victory over Detroit on Saturday. He figures to be a veteran presence for a young dressing room, a role he’s embraced since signing his one-year deal in July.
The other job was won by Tokarski, who stopped 35 of 37 shots in three preseason appearances to earn the nod over 22-year-old prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and incoming veteran Aaron Dell. Tokarski appeared in 13 games for the Sabres last season, his first NHL action since 2016.
“I had a hunch he would build on last year and taking that experience and finding another level, and I think he’s done all of that,” Granato said. “And so, he’s earned the right to be here. Everything matters to him. He competes every moment.”