There are a lot of questions about Casey Nelson as he prepares for his Sabres debut this afternoon against Winnipeg. Most fans hadn't heard his name before the Sabres announced they signed the Minnesota State defenseman on Tuesday evening.
Nelson opted to forgo his senior year after a season where he scored six goals, 16 assists and was named the WCHA's Defensive Player of the Year. His best statistical season came the year prior, when he scored seven goals and notched 26 assists in 40 games. Despite the decrease, he got stronger in his own end and was able to log a heavier load for Minnesota State.
He was a highly regarded undrafted free agent but said he would return for his senior season in January. Yet, the multiple NHL offers he fielded made going pro too appealing to pass up.
"We've been consistently impressed with Casey's play for the last two years," Sabres general manager Tim Murray said in the Sabres' statement. "We identified him as one of the top college free agents available and we're excited to have him join the organization."
He's come a long way from his freshman year, when he had trouble staying in the lineup. He played 19 games since he was usually the seventh defenseman for the Mavericks. He described himself in his introductory interview as a late-bloomer, and everyone else seems to agree. He's grown four inches, and his coach said he's added the muscle as well. He now has the confidence to trust his strong hockey instincts, which allow him to utilize his skating ability and offensive prowess at a higher level.
I talked to Shane Frederick, the college hockey writer for the Mankato Free Press, and Chris Dilks, managing editor of SB Nation's College Hockey, about what Sabres fans should expect out of the young defenseman. You can also check out this article from the Sabres, where they talk to Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings.
1. I've seen him described as an offensive defenseman. Do you think that is a correct characterization?
I think it is. He put up 55 points in 80 games in his last two years in college. No defenseman in the WCHA has had more points. He's been a staple on the power play and he gets shots to the net. His 107 shots on goal this season led the WCHA and ranked sixth in the nation among defensemen.
2. What are his best attributes?
His offensive skills listed above and his ability to move and make good decisions with the puck, whether it's to move it out of the D zone or around the offensive zone. He's an excellent skater and has good hands. He's also a hard worker with a real desire to improve his game.
3. What are his biggest weaknesses?
I'm curious to see how he stands up physically at the next level. He has good size at 6'2" and 182 lbs. but he can get stronger. Talking to him throughout the season, he felt he had several things to work on to improve his game in his own end and really focused on that. That work will continue, I'm sure.
4. He's been called one of the most improved players in college hockey. In what way did he improve as his collegiate career went along?
His first year of college hockey didn't go very well. He was in and out of the lineup, played in just 19 games and had five points. A year later, he had the college game figured out. He played in all 40 games, played a lot of minutes every night and scored 33 points.
5. How valuable was he for Minnesota State?
Extremely valuable. The Mavericks are a team that likes to possess the puck, and his abilities with the puck on his stick really helped make them go. He ranked fourth on the team in points this season and third last year when MSU went into the NCAA tournament ranked No. 1 in the country.
6. Were you surprised that he decided to not return for a final season?
Yes and no. No, because there's been a lot of chatter since the end of last season about him being a top college free agent. Obviously, that chatter continued into this season. Yes, because in January he said made the decision to return for his senior year. I think he was sincere in that, but clearly, that didn't stop NHL teams from continuing to pursue him. When he was named WCHA Defensive Player of the Year and first-team All-WCHA and made the All-Tournament Team at the WCHA Final Five, I had a feeling he might end up changing his mind.
7. How do you think he projects at the NHL level?
Considering how teams scouted him throughout the season and pursued him so quickly afterward, I would think he projects well. I think he has all the skills to take his game to that level.
1. You wrote that he was arguably the most improved player in college hockey. What in his game changed to move him from a seventh defenseman to a coveted free agent?
Consistency and confidence were the biggest things. Nelson came to Minnesota State out of the NAHL, and that can be a big adjustment for players because the game becomes so much faster. They have to make quicker decisions with the puck, and they're tested defensively a lot more against faster players. By his second season, the game started to slow down for him and he was able to show his skills better. There were flashes of what he might become in that first year, but also some really tough games where he struggled defensively, and in his last two years, he really cleaned up a lot of those mistakes.
2. You guys ranked him as the 85th best player in college hockey earlier this month. Did he move up from where you would have had him at the start of the year?
He did move up. This season, I think he added another facet to his game by getting better at picking his spots to join into the rush offensively. Last season, Minnesota State had a guy in Zach Palmquist that played a lot of minutes. This year, Nelson really took over that role by logging a ton of minutes in every situation, and I thought he became a lot more consistent on the defensive end.
3. In that article you and Jeff Cox said he projects as a second pair defenseman in the NHL. Do you have a comparable player to him in mind?
I don't watch enough NHL to be great with player comparisons. Somebody like Alec Martinez for the LA Kings comes to mind. Not an elite scoring defenseman, but a guy that is pretty reliable and contributes on the power play.
4. The three attributes I see tied to him most frequently are good skater, offensively skilled and cerebral player. Which do you believe is his best attribute?
I think his offensive skills are the big reason Buffalo wanted him so badly. His ability to generate shots from the blue line and to distribute the puck to teammates is really exceptional. He only had six goals this past year, but was generating over two-and-a-half shots on goal per game for himself. Guys that aren't afraid to shoot the puck like that and are consistently creating opportunities are extremely valuable.
5. Do you think his growth from 5'10" to 6'2" helped his game? Does he have a physical side, or do you think he needs to put on a bit more weight to play like that in the NHL?
The thing with his late growth spurt is: How many times have you seen a super-skilled little guy and said "Boy, if he was only a couple inches taller..." Nelson is that guy. He had to have the skill game to survive when he was smaller, and then all of a sudden he grew a couple inches and was able to keep that same skill level. He's not going to be a big physical presence that is blowing people up with big hits, but he's big enough that he's not going to get pushed around physically either, and the added size makes him a lot stronger on the puck.