Hudson Fasching and Casey Nelson both put their college careers behind them in the past week to sign with the Buffalo Sabres, but that doesn't mean they're done with their schooling. Fasching said he still has courses he needs to complete in order to earn his degree this May.
Similarly, class was in session for both rookies on the ice at First Niagara Center on Thursday. Fasching and Nelson participated in the first NHL practices after signing their respective entry-level contracts with the Sabres on Monday and Wednesday.
Several times as the practice went on, the pair would be pulled aside by a coach and given pointers or taken to the white board, be it by head coach Dan Bylsma or assistants Terry Murray and Dan Lambert.
"I've been learning systems rapidly over the past couple of days," Fasching said. "I'm trying to soak it right now, everything from learning systems to where to put my dirty laundry almost. I'm just learning everything, all the little details and just getting into the routine."
Bylsma said he skated with both players on Wednesday afternoon while the rest of the team had the day off. Their nervousness was evident, and rightfully so. Outside of a quick session on their own Wednesday, neither player had really been on the ice since Saturday. Nelson, an undrafted free agent, hadn't even made the decision to turn pro until Sunday.
With that day already under their belts, Nelson said having the team around them on Wednesday helped shed the nerves.
"It was fun," he said. "The guys took me in kind of under their wing and I already learned a lot out there – coaches as well. We've been going over some stuff and like I said [I'm] kind of trying to soak it in."
Here are some of the questions that were answered regarding the two rookies on Thursday:
When will they play?
What neither player knows – and what Bylsma has not yet announced – is when they'll crack the lineup, if at all. Bylsma conceded that the team would like to get both players game action at some point, but wants to see another day of practice at least before determining when that might be.
As of Wednesday, Fasching alternated with Cal O'Reilly on the fourth line alongside Matt Moulson and David Legwand.
Nelson, a right-handed defenseman, skated on some rushes to the right of Carlo Colaiacovo. Nelson said that, while he hasn't had much experience playing on the left side, he's open to trying it.
The Sabres next play Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m. against Winnipeg.
Why'd they turn pro?
Fasching said he spoke with University of Minnesota coach Don Lucia at the beginning of the season about it potentially being his last at the college ranks. That decision was vindicated after earning quality leadership experience as captain of the team and setting career highs with 20 goals and 18 assists.
"The scoring touch kind of came on for me this year," Fasching said. "I was able to put a lot more pucks in the net than I had in previous years and I was able to score in different ways, too. My freshman and sophomore year was a lot of just rebounds, a lot of stuff plays, a lot of easy goals in some people's eyes.
"This year, I had a lot more; I had a couple shots, a couple one-timers. So I was able to diversify my game a little bit, log a lot of ice time in different roles."
Nelson, meanwhile, went undrafted after struggling for part of his freshman season at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Both he and his college coach admitted that he was thrown into the mix a bit too early, with Nelson referring to himself as a "late bloomer" on Thursday.
His stock rose, however, and he continued to improve over his sophomore and junior seasons. After attending Development Camp with the Philadelphia Flyers in July, Nelson won the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's Defensive Player of the Year Award as a junior.
Even so, he was still planning to return for his senior season as late as December. He made the decision to turn pro on Sunday, one day after his season ended at Minnesota State, and narrowed several NHL offers to a few selected candidates prior to signing with Buffalo on Wednesday.
Wait, Minnesota and Minnesota State? Do these kids know each other?
Yes, but not as anything more than opponents prior to the last few days. Fasching and Nelson squared off five times during their collegiate careers, with Fasching's Gophers defeating Nelson's Mavericks in three of those games.
Fasching scored one goal and three assists in those five games; Nelson tallied three assists total and posted a plus-3 rating in their most recent matchup on Nov. 14.
"He was our arch-rival there with Minnesota," Nelson said of Fasching. "Didn’t know really much about him; I know he's a great kid. We're a couple doors down at the Marriott so we've became quick friends here now, not arch-rivals anymore. It's great to have him."
What can we expect?
Bylsma saw Fasching play on a team with Jack Eichel at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship and saw him in person at Development Camp this past summer. Both times, he was impressed with Fasching's size.
Fasching is listed at 6-foot-2 and 216 pounds, and Bylsma said the power forward's style of play isn't something that's only missing from the Sabres' lineup, but from the current NHL in general.
"He's not going to skate like Evander Kane. Evander Kane is a power forward – skating, driving, a force to handle," Bylsma said. "But I think it's a little bit missing in the game today. You don’t see that big power forward as much as you saw before … that's kind of where Hudson has a niche and could go with his game."
There will be adjustments, however, beginning with growing accustomed to the increase of pace when making the jump from the NCAA to the NHL.
"Speed and pace, no question is going to be an adjustment," Bylsma said. "You play 20, 22 minutes a game at the college level, it's probably not the highest pace you can get at.
"The NHL game is going to be at a higher pace for him, it's going to be at a higher speed and even the quick feet around the net are going to be a factor for him. He's going to have to be quick and faster there to be a factor with what he can do as a player."
Nelson, too, is listed at 6-foot-2 but weighs only 183 pounds. But Bylsma said after seeing him in person that he looked bigger than the vitals on the back of his hockey card might suggest.
"Yesterday and today on the ice he looks a lot bigger than that and it's really because of the way he skates," Bylsma said. "He's a bit of a late bloomer; Casey is, with his career and his game. But he's an exciting player because I think of what the possibilities are of what he could be for our team."
The Sabres signed one other college player this month in goaltender Jason Kasdorf, and he might be taking a step closer to practicing with the team on Friday. Kasdorf, who tweaked his groin at the end of his collegiate season, will skate with goalie coach Andrew Allen with an eye toward participating in a full practice later in the week.
Forward Tyler Ennis is also making progress, having skated and worked out on Wednesday morning. Bylsma said he hopes to have Ennis, who has missed 37 games with a concussion, back on the ice "sooner rather than later."
Goaltender Robin Lehner, who's missed three games due to a tweak in his previously injured ankle, will continue to rest until Saturday, when he will be reevaluated by team doctors. Defenseman Cody Franson, out for 15 games with a neck injury, has not progressed and is not skating nor working out.
ACADEMY OF HOCKEY TO BE PART OF SATURDAY'S BROADCAST
Academy of Hockey development coaches will join the Buffalo Sabres television broadcast Saturday (12:30 p.m., MSG) for "Sabres Between the Boards Presented by the Academy of Hockey."
The broadcast will feature Academy director Kevyn Adams, along with development coaches Marty Biron and Ethan Moreau, who will be educating viewers on specific aspects of many individual hockey plays that affect the outcome of certain points of the game.
"Saturday’s broadcast will be a teaching day,” Adams said. "Together with the Sabres broadcast team, we will be using NHL hockey to educate on all levels. There are many plays that happen in every single game that can be used as teaching moments for players and coaches who are eager to learn. It will be our job to focus on these moments Saturday and turn the broadcast into an educational experience for all of our viewers."
With a combined 53 years of professional hockey experience, Adams, Biron and Moreau will create instant educational analysis that focuses on hockey strategies and proper mechanics. The analysis will be accented by increased telestration and visual examples of the actions and outcomes of individual hockey plays.
The educational focus of Saturday’s broadcast will help viewers learn more about situational awareness, hockey decisions and coaching strategies. Throughout the game, Academy coaches John Daigneau and Mike Ansell will be corresponding with viewers over the Academy of Hockey’s social media platforms. Fans are encouraged to participate by using the hash tag #AOHchat.