On Tuesday night, the Buffalo Sabres signed undrafted free agent Casey Nelson to an entry-level contract. Nelson, 23, chose to forego his senior season at Minnesota State University, Mankato coming off of a season in which he tallied 22 points (6+16) and was named the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's Defensive Player of the Year.
Mike Hastings coached Nelson throughout his time at Minnesota State. On Wednesday, he revisited the defenseman's collegiate career with Sabres.com.
To go from going undrafted to becoming one of the premier college free agents available, what have you seen over the past three years that is responsible for Casey's rise in stock?
I think of a couple of things right away. At the top, when I think about Casey's ascension over the last three years, anything that's been in his control – working on his game, whether it's skill sessions, whether it's in the weight room, understanding what it means to live the right way – he's done a really job at managing the effort and attitude. He's done a really good job at making sure anything he can control he does to the Nth degree.
It's allowed him from a confidence standpoint that when he does step out on the ice, he knows that he's done everything he can to be successful. Preparation-wise, he's kind of a video junkie. Every weekend after series he's in the video room to sit down and talk about his specifics shifts, what he liked and what he didn’t like. He was always in the pursuit of getting better.
He had one year remaining of NCAA eligibility. How has he handled this process of making the decision whether or not to forgo that final year to turn pro?
Very well. Any time you have a young man that starts to gain the attention that Casey was gaining during and after his sophomore year, I think it was a little bit intimidating at first. But as he continued to go through the process, [having] communication one-on-one with a couple of individuals from each NHL franchise, I think he became more comfortable with it.
I thought he handled it really well. At times at our level you'll see that become a little bit of a roadblock in how a young man plays Fridays and Saturdays. I didn’t see that with Casey.
You mentioned his constant pursuit to improve. What areas did he need to grow in from the beginning of college to where he's at now?
The one was strength. Right away, he came in with good length – he was 6'2"-plus – but he needed to put some good muscle, good weight on over a period time. And he has been unbelievably focused on what goes into his body, what he does every day to make sure that he can put the weight on and that's something he's going to continue to do.
And then two, I think that by putting on the added strength it allowed him to play the style that I think you're going to see him play. He skates very well. He has great vision. The adjustment for him is going to be the grind of being a pro and being able to understand preparation. But I really believe his ability to see the rink, distribute the puck – he can get you out of your zone with his feet or with his stick. He can do things at the offensive blue line that allows you to sustain offensive pressure. He can play all three zones, but I really believe that the strength factor and the confidence that came with that added strength is why you saw his ascension.
He won WCHA Defensive Player of the Year this past season. His point total was actually down from his sophomore year (from 33 to 22). Did you see a lot of growth on the defensive end?
Absolutely. His complete play without the puck has become more of a strength in the last year. Yes, you saw his numbers drop a bit offensively. But he ended up being a guy who can play 22-26 minutes in a game and it didn’t matter what type of game or what situation was going on at the end of the game. He needed to be on the ice because he could do all things.
How do you expect him to adjust to professional hockey?
One thing that I appreciated about Casey is that he's more comfortable inside the rink, on the rink in a game than he might be off of it and I mean that as a complement. It didn’t matter if we were playing in a game that had 17,000 at the Xcel Center during the Minnesota Cup. He doesn’t have a lot of panic his game.
He'll go in playing a game that he's comfortable playing. He came in here comfortable as a freshman. I'm going to tell you that I probably made some mistakes giving too much too soon, but he went back to controlling what he controls and when he got back in the lineup later in the season he became a very important piece from that point all the way through last Saturday.