Casey Nelson got caught looking ahead. It left him behind.
The defenseman made Buffalo’s opening-night roster, which he figured was the start of a successful rookie year in the NHL. By mid-November, he had no points in eight games while being scratched in eight others.
The Sabres sent him to Rochester to gain confidence, and Nelson figured they’d recall him soon. The second half of November disappeared without a call. The phone didn’t ring in December. He got a one-game look in January, then February came and went.
Meanwhile, Nelson was slumping, including a slide of no goals, three assists and a minus-11 rating in 18 games. So the Sabres instead summoned defensemen Justin Falk, Taylor Fedun, Brendan Guhle and Erik Burgdoerfer. At the end of the season, Brady Austin got a look, too.
Nelson figured it was time to focus on what was happening in Rochester, not what might happen with Buffalo.
“You’ve still got to perform to stay there, and I think I learned that this year,” the 24-year-old said. “Not that I didn’t know nothing is handed out, but to a whole nother level I learned that this year.”
During the Amerks’ final weeks, Nelson closed with a flourish. He had three goals, seven points and a plus-7 rating in the final 10 games, sending him into the summer with that long-awaited boost of confidence.
“A lot of growing there in the last couple months,” he said. “I finished well, and that’s good. I’m glad we didn’t finish the season in January because I wasn’t feeling good at that point. I wish we could keep playing here, but I’ll have to wait to next year.”
Defense is the Sabres’ glaring weak spot, so Nelson will have a chance on the blue line. Buffalo is expecting Guhle and potential Russian import Viktor Antipin to make a push, but Nelson should also be in the mix.
“The last month of the season certainly his game, gosh, it improved so much I can’t even say,” Amerks coach Dan Lambert said. “He really took a huge step. It took him time. It took him time to adjust to the American Hockey League. It’s not an easy league to play in.
“Maybe the fact that he started in the National Hockey League, he might have came back and thought it was going to be easy. I don’t know, but certainly his last month was what we hope to see in the future.”
Tim Murray signed Nelson after the defenseman’s junior year at Minnesota State Mankato. He looked good during a seven-game run, recording four assists at the end of the 2015-16 season. Although this year didn’t go as planned for Nelson – he finished with no points in 11 games for Buffalo, with seven goals and 21 points in 58 games for Rochester – Murray still had faith.
“He to me is still a transition, puck-moving defenseman that we’re looking for,” Murray said before getting fired as general manager last month. “Is he going to be ready next year? That will be up to him. He has a chance.”
Nelson plans to spend the summer at Mankato, taking classes and working out. He had a strange neck ailment this year – “I could be walking down the sidewalk and, boom, I’m out for a week every month” – and he’ll work to strengthen that.
He’ll also focus on the day-to-day routine. He knows if that doesn’t happen, nothing else will.
“There’s a lot of room to grow, and I’ve got to take strides this summer,” Nelson said. “Hopefully, I come back confident and ready for that role.”