When the Buffalo Sabres announced the signing of Minnesota State defenseman Casey Nelson, the collective sentiment running through much of Sabreland was, “who?” followed quickly by, “from where?”
Fellow collegian Hudson Fasching, who had just been signed by Buffalo on Monday, was much more well known in Sabreland having played for the Minnesota Golden Gophers of the BIG 10 while in the Sabres system. Fasching was a former fourth round pick (2013, 118th overall, LAK) who had a career year for the Gophers in 2015-16 and was still getting most of the headlines when the undrafted Nelson signed a day later.
Minnesota State is rather obscure to those of us outside the state of Minnesota, as is the NCAA's Western Collegiate Hockey Association, but for three of the past four years, the Mavericks have been a part of the NCAA Division I Men's Hockey Tournament. They claimed an at-large bid to the tournament in 2013 and in 2014-15 they were ranked 13th nationally heading into the tournament, after winning their conference. This past season they lost in the WCHA Tournament leaving them without a bid, however it did allow Nelson the opportunity to forgo his senior season and he ended up signing Buffalo.
Unlike with Fasching, there really wasn't much anticipation and/or fanfare with the Nelson signing. Buffalo GM Tim Murray announced it with a simple two-sentence statement. “We’ve been consistently impressed with Casey’s play for the last two years,” said the GM in the release. “We identified him as one of the top college free agents available and we’re excited to have him join the organization.”
The two years Murray mentioned is what caught the attention of many NHL scouting departments and many of them pursued him. But he and his agent chose the Buffalo Sabres as the fit.
After a "quick turnaround" over the weekend and some signing on the dotted-line, he was on the ice practicing in the Blue and Gold. While meeting the Buffalo media after his first professional practice on Thursday, Nelson called the short period over the weekend "nerve-wracking" but the seemingly humble and rather forthright Nelson conceded that it's "an exciting time" for him, as it should be, and that he's "looking to learn and soak things in."
Nelson also briefly touched upon his last two seasons at Minnesota State and the progression of his defensive game which placed him solidly in the positive side of the plus/minus rating. It's a far cry from where the offensive defenseman started out as a freshman. "My freshman year I was kinda thrown in rather early," he told the gathered media, "couldn't handle it, was out of the lineup there for a while."
His rise from healthy scratch to NHL contract actually started in-season that freshman year, according to Mavericks head coach Mike Hastings, as Nelson began to focus his energies on managing his 24-hour day. The regiment included finding time to practice as well as hitting the weight room, proper nutrition, rest and recovery plus preparation for the next game in addition to focusing on academics in pursuit of his degree.
Hastings told me that the "strength factor and maybe the mental maturity really caught up to him" early in his freshman season and that Nelson found himself out of the lineup because of it. But the coach quickly followed that up by saying what impressed him most was how Nelson used those shortcomings and failures as motivation to turn things around. "I think you learn the most about people once they get knocked down, once you face that adversity," said Hastings. "He could have thrown a pity-party and I didn't see it. He just went back to work."
The coach said that Nelson "immersed himself" in preparation while out of the lineup to be ready if and when another opportunity came. It came when injury hit one of their defensemen and Nelson was ready. "He succeeded immediately," said Hastings. "He had an impact on our team right away. You don't usually see that at our level. They [usually] have a tough time coming in and making a positive impact after something like that, but he did that."
Hastings said that Nelson wasn't necessarily angry with being benched but that he had "an internal burn" that fueled him, one that also didn't disrupt what the coaching staff was trying to accomplish. There was no negativity either verbally or non-verbally, he just went about the business of trying to get better which earned the respect of his teammates and of the coaching staff as well.
Nelson followed that resurgent freshman season up with a breakout year as a sophomore. His 33 points (7+26) were sixth amongst NCAA defenseman and just three points shy of the Mavericks single-season record for a blueliner according to Derek Lambert of Along the Boards. After that season Hastings said Nelson could've signed a pro contract but that he decided to return to school to work on his degree, get bigger, stronger and faster to become a complete defenseman on the ice.
Although his 2015-16 offensive production (6+16) was down from the previous year, Hastings said it was a conscious decision on his part to become a "200-foot defenseman" during his junior season and that "he rounded out his game [to the point] where he could impact the game in all three zones."
Hastings had his No. 1 defenseman playing top-pairing minutes as well as anchoring first-unit powerplay and first-unit penalty-kill. Nelson played anywhere from 22-28 minutes per night brimming with the confidence gained from his sophomore successes. It was a confidence that allowed Nelson to see the game as it was unfolding, and allowed him to play any type of game necessary. Whether making quick decisions under duress, skating the puck up ice or hitting an open man on a stretch pass, Nelson, said the coach, had the faculties to read the play and the skill to get the puck where it needed to be, which in turn "makes him hard to play against."
"Sometimes he lets things develop. At times players are in a hurry and sometimes a play isn't there immediately," said Hastings. "I think there's a poise to [Nelson's] game that allows him, especially over the last year, to take what the game gives him and not force things."
At 6'2" 182 lbs. there is still some room for Nelson to add bulk, which he'll need at the NHL-level and Hastings believes that he'll do what's necessary to maximize his potential with proper training and nutrition, just like he did at Minnesota State. He already has the skating and the hockey sense plus a laser focus on preparation as he learned just how far "immersing himself" can take him.
Put it all together and this self-described late-bloomer will give the NHL his best shot and probably succeed. Quietly. Just like his signing by Buffalo. "He doesn't draw attention to himself by his body language, positively or negatively," said coach Hastings. "He just tries to go out and do his job the best he can."
According to Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma, both Nelson and Fasching will be making their NHL debut this afternoon at home against the Winnipeg Jets. Bylsma, via sabres.com, said Fasching will be on the fourth line with David Legwand and Matt Moulson while Nelson would be playing strong-side on the third paring with Mark Pysyk.
Also of note, the Sabres signed former Peterborough Petes forward Eric Cornel to his entry-level contract. Cornel was selected by Buffalo with the 44th pick of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft and is having a career year with the Petes. His 83 points on 27 goals and 56 assists going into last night's OHL playoffs were career highs in all categories. Last year he had a brief stint with the Rochester Americans. For more on his pro debut, you can click here