BROOKLYN – Casey Nelson’s best friends this summer will be a fork, spoon and knife. The man can’t wait to eat.
“Definitely putting on a lot of weight this summer,” the Sabres defenseman said. “I’ve been in college, so it’s not like we’ve been eating the best. I can’t keep my weight on after the summer. Through the season, I’ve probably lost 15, 18 pounds, so I think maintaining my weight will definitely be a good thing here because we eat pretty well.”
Nelson has learned plenty through his first seven NHL games, but one of the biggest lessons is he needs to bulk up. Listed at 6-foot-2 and 183 pounds, he feels the added mass will help him compete in front of the net and in the corners.
“Defending at this level is definitely hard,” he said. “It’ll take a lot of work this summer, but I can’t wait.”
Nelson and fellow college signee Hudson Fasching returned to the lineup Saturday night for the Sabres in their season-closing 4-3 overtime victory over the New York Islanders. They sat for the first time Friday but got another welcome dose of on-the-job training in Barclays Center.
“Just the whole experience has been tremendous,” Fasching said. “The one thing I’ve been learning the past couple games is how you’ve got to be mentally dialed in 24/7. You can’t take a shift off. You can’t have a mental lapse.
“In college hockey or junior hockey, if you have an off shift, it’s tolerable. It’s not ideal, but it’ll happen and it’s not going to create any major problems. If you have a mental lapse out there, there’s Grade A scoring chances against in a hurry. So you’ve got to be mentally dialed in all the time, make sure you’re in the right spot and doing your job.”
Being in the right spot hasn’t been easy for Fasching.
“Positioning in D-zone, there are some things I’ve had ingrained in me to do a certain way,” the 20-year-old said. “Coaches are like, ‘Ah, we don’t really want you to do it that way.’ There’s definitely a transition period, but I think I’m learning and growing and continuing to get better. That’s kind of what the whole experience has been about.”
Fasching and Nelson have certainly had their moments since signing late last month. Nelson has four assists while Fasching scored in his debut and added an assist Saturday.
“It’s been a great experience for both Casey and Hudson to be able to come in and not only play and play a game but play a number of games,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “It’s a been a great experience for us to get to see them play, see what they could do and see them get adjusted to the pro game. I think it’s going to be a huge advantage for them going into next season having had the experience. It’s a big jump-start for where they’re at in their career.”
The players are eligible to go to Rochester for the Amerks’ final four games to continue learning.
“Casey has played a number of games but in the last couple has fought the puck a little bit and fought the speed a little bit in the game in his execution level,” Bylsma said. “Hudson’s got a real good grasp of his game and the success he’s having and where he needs to be better.”
When Linus Ullmark arrived in North America last fall, he wasn’t sure he’d get any NHL games. He was still recovering from hip surgery and Robin Lehner was scheduled to be the Sabres’ workhorse in net.
Fast-forward to Saturday, and Ullmark closed Buffalo’s season with his 20th appearance. The Sabres summoned Ullmark from Rochester because of a minor injury to Chad Johnson.
“It’s been a terrific learning experience from Day One to hopefully the last day here of the season,” Ullmark said. “To have the opportunity to play in the National Hockey League and also have the opportunity to play a lot of games in the AHL, I tried to develop my game to the North American style and all that stuff. The learning process has been really fun.”
Ullmark made 21 saves Saturday to go 8-10-2 with a .913 save percentage for the Sabres. He’s 10-14 with the Amerks with a .902 but has lost six straight.
“It’s been ups and downs,” he said. “If you look at it statistically, it hasn’t been really good. Still, I feel like I’m heading in the right direction. Kept battling every game and thought I haven’t been that low. If you start thinking too much about the games when you’re playing bad, it’s easy to go way downhill.
“You can’t take anything for granted. It’s so easy to be a bad team, to be a good team because it’s just a game of inches. You can have a great game but you can’t score, and then they score three goals. You can have a bad game, you score four goals and you win. It’s really different. It gets you motivated all day long and every night to go out there and battle to your best.”