Sabres Surprising Bright Spot Casey Nelson

The Buffalo Sabres haven’t had much to celebrate this season. The team is on pace to finish with their worst home record in franchise history and Jack Eichel may very well be sidelined for the rest of the year with a high ankle sprain.

For what seems like ages, Sabres fans have had their sights set on the future. The organization has spent the better part of the past decade mired in obscurity, and supporters of the blue and gold have grown weary. In a year where Buffalo has fallen well short of expectations, there have been very few pleasant surprises, particularly on defense.

On a blue line consisting of under-achievers, Casey Nelson has made the most of his NHL opportunity.

Nelson’s Road to Buffalo

Following his third season with Minnesota State University, Mankato, the Sabres signed Nelson to an entry-level contract. He would finish the 2015-16 season in Buffalo where he posted four assists in seven games. Despite his impressive debut, he would only spend 11 games with Buffalo during the 2016-17 season where he failed to register a single point.

At 24 years old, a reassignment to Rochester certainly didn’t bode well for his long-term outlook with the franchise. While players like Justin Falk and Taylor Fedun appeared to pass him on the organizational depth chart, Nelson persevered in the AHL, patiently waiting for another opportunity in Western New York. On January 18, he became the sixth Amerks defenseman to receive a call-up in 2017-18.

Sabres defenseman Casey Nelson
Sabres defenseman Casey Nelson served on the top pair against the New York Islanders last week. (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

Since being inserted into the lineup, Nelson has been a revelation. Last week he was called upon to serve on the first-pair in the Sabres’ 4-3 victory over the New York Islanders.

Defensive anchor, Rasums Ristolainen continues to show signs of fatigue after four straight seasons of overuse, and Nelson’s defensively responsible, two-way game has been a welcome addition. He is a prime examples of how extended development time in the AHL can make all the difference. It’s something Jason Botterill has preached since he first arrived in Buffalo and Nelson’s emergence only justifies his strategy moving forward.

If he can continue to eat up big minutes at even-strength and on special teams, he may just establish himself as the best all-around defenseman on the team heading into next season.

An Impressive Stretch

Nelson tallied his first career NHL goal in the Sabres’ 5-4 loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday evening in Buffalo. While serving on the penalty-kill, he took advantage of a gap on the right-wing and carried the puck from end to end, banking a wrap-around attempt off the skate of Colorado defenseman, Erik Johnson.

He became just the second player in team history to score their first career goal while shorthanded.

Over the past five games, Nelson has registered a goal and three assists. Not only has he contributed offensively, he has also been the Sabres’ most steady presence in his own end. Through 13 games this season, he has earned himself more ice time, and has inspired confidence from head coach, Phil Housley.

Housley told John Vogl in his most recent post in the Buffalo News,

“I just like the way he’s moving the puck and defending. He’s trying to keep the game simple. His first pass is usually really good and on the tape. I like the way he’s defending. He’s trying to keep his inside position, especially against bigger players.”

(from ‘Sabres’ Nelson making most of chance’, The Buffalo News – 2/8/18)

The first-year bench boss has been refreshingly critical of his team as of late. His glowing endorsement of Nelson’s recent play speaks volumes to how he has embraced what might have been his last chance to show the organization that he is ready for a full-time role.

Sabres’ Depth on Defense

For the past five seasons, the Sabres’ organizational depth on the back-end has left a lot to be desired. Beyond a top-six assembled of aging veterans and NHL fringe players, the team has failed to spend early draft picks on defensemen.

The last time the organization used a first-round pick to reinforce the blue line was in 2013 when they selected Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov. While Ristolainen remains entrenched on the top-pair, Zadorov was dealt to Colorado as part of the trade to acquire Ryan O’Reilly.

Buffalo Sabres Rasmus Ristolainen
Rasmus Ristolainen is the Sabres’ only remaining first-round draft selection the Sabres have spent on defense over the past five years. (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

The team was fortunate enough to strike gold on Brendan Guhle with their second-round selection in 2015, but aside from him, the prospect cupboard is relatively sparse. 2015 fourth-round pick, Will Borgen is currently playing for Team USA in the Winter Olympics, but it remains to be seen whether or not the 21-year-old will be able to crack the Amerks’ roster next season.

Nelson’s emergence provides the Sabres an opportunity to lock down a spot in the top-six without breaking the bank. He is set to become a restricted free agent this summer, but the price to retain him on a short-term bridge deal will be relatively inexpensive.

There is some question as to whether or not Nelson will stay with the Sabres for the remainder of the season. With the team all but eliminated from playoff contention, Botterill may send him back to Rochester in order to reinforce the Amerks blue line as they push for a Calder Cup run. If Botterill does elect to keep him on the Sabres roster, the 25-year-old has the opportunity to show the Buffalo brass that his recent stretch isn’t just an apparition.

Though the fans in Buffalo are running out of reasons to tune in following Eichel’s injury, Nelson is certainly a player worth watching.