One week removed from playing in college and with just two team practices under their belts, Hudson Fasching and Casey Nelson will both make their NHL debuts for the Buffalo Sabres at home Saturday afternoon against the Winnipeg Jets.
Fasching and Nelson signed their entry-level deals with Buffalo on Monday and Wednesday, respectively. Both completed their junior seasons in the NCAA on Saturday – Fasching with the University of Minnesota and Nelson with Minnesota State University, Mankato.
Fasching, 20, hadn’t yet found out whether he would when he spoke after practice on Friday, but he had no trouble summoning the words as to what it might mean if he did.
"It's something that I've dreamed about since I was a little kid," he said. "I've put in a lot of hard work, my family and I have sacrificed a lot to get here. It means the world to me."
While Sabres coach Dan Bylsma left open the possibility for him to move throughout the lineup as the game progresses, Fasching will start the game on the right wing alongside Matt Moulson and center David Legwand. Fasching spent time in the past as a linemate of Jack Eichel's with the U.S. National Development Team.
Nelson, meanwhile, will play on the right side of a defensive pair with Mark Pysyk. Cal O'Reilly and Carlo Colaiacovo will be healthy scratches to make room in the lineup.
"We don’t have a lot of practices going forward," Bylsma said. "We're playing the back-to-back games on the road in Detroit and Pittsburgh [next week] so part of that played into the equation for the opportunity, when they got it and when they were going to get it.
"Two practices with the team, hopefully they've gotten their feet wet a little bit, gotten a chance to practice with their teammates, practice with the team and hopefully [they'll be] as comfortable as you can feel in your first NHL game."
One player who knows how they'll be feeling is defenseman Jake McCabe, who played seven games at the end of the 2013-14 season after completing his third year at the University of Wisconsin. McCabe joined the team on a flight to St. Louis, scared of the situation and not really knowing his teammates.
"You're nervous," he said. "You're walking on an NHL team and guys are looking at you, they're obviously not thrilled with where they're at in the standings and then here comes a college kid with no experience and thrown into the fire kind of thing. But it was a good experience and I think it'll be good for those guys too."
With that in mind, McCabe and the other Sabres have made it a point to help the newcomers feel welcome over the past few days.
"I know exactly where they're coming from," he said. "It's uncomfortable, but we have a great group of guys here in the room … It's a weird thing, but I think that they'll be better from it and I think our veterans guys – and us young guys even – will welcome them with open arms."
Fasching and Nelson at least have some familiarity on their side, though in different ways. Fasching was acquired in a trade with the Los Angeles Kings in March 2014 and had the opportunity to spend time in Buffalo at Development Camps this past summer along with the likes of Eichel, McCabe and Sam Reinhart.
Nelson's familiarity, meanwhile, stems more from experience. The 23-year-old defenseman has had to prove himself at every level to this point, from earning a walk-on role at Minnesota State after three years in the North American Hockey League to becoming a premier undrafted free agent after struggling in his freshman year.
"I think it's a big attribute for Casey that he has been able to – against some long odds, against some difficult situations – he has carved out his game, he's carved out his ability," Bylsma said. "He's gone from being a walk-on to a huge part of a team in three years and one of the most sought after college free agent now.
"He's done that through hard work, he's done that through development of his game and he's got an older age to him I guess than a young kid but he's really defying the odds right now in terms of making the NHL and I think he's going to find a way to carve out a career for himself."
Chad Johnson will be the starter in net for Buffalo on Saturday. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. with Tops Sabres Gamenight on MSG-B and Bell TV. The game can also be heard live on WGR 550.
KASDORF HITS THE ICE
Goalie Jason Kasdorf skated on Friday for the first time since signing his entry-level deal on March 14, a delay caused by a groin injury he sustained at the end of his season with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Kasdorf spent time working with goalies coach Andrew Allen and then took shots along with fellow goaltenders Johnson and Nathan Lieuwen at the beginning of practice.
"It was really good," Kasdorf said. "We just wanted to test it out, see how I felt and it obviously felt a lot better so it was really nice just to see a couple pucks and be skating again after two weeks."
The weeks since he signed have been bittersweet for Kasdorf. On one hand there's the excitement of being with an NHL organization; on the other there's the frustration of not being able to practice due to injury.
In the meantime, he's been watching the Sabres' goalies closely every day at practice and creating a relationship with them off the ice. He said he's already learned from watching Johnson's collected, limited-movement style.
"I've gotten to know them quite well," he said. "I really like them and they've been really nice to me with kind of helping me out with whatever I need. Obviously Chad being a college guy as well, he's had lots of good stuff for me."
9 Evander Kane – 90 Ryan O'Reilly – 44 Nicolas Deslauriers
28 Zemgus Girgensons – 15 Jack Eichel – 23 Sam Reinhart
82 Marcus Foligno – 22 Johan Larsson – 12 Brian Gionta
26 Matt Moulson – 17 David Legwand – 52 Hudson Fasching/19 Cal O'Reilly
4 Josh Gorges – 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
29 Jake McCabe – 47 Zach Bogosian
3 Mark Pysyk – 34 Casey Nelson/25 Carlo Colaiacovo
31 Chad Johnson
50 Nathan Lieuwen