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Sabres' Casey Nelson wants to earn roster spot with his play

EDINA, Minn. – Casey Nelson knows he has a big advantage on paper when it comes to earning a job with the Buffalo Sabres this season. He wants to make sure his play on the ice seals the deal.

One of the big storylines of training camp will be which players can be sent to Rochester without waivers and which ones cannot. The Sabres can send down Brendan Guhle, their 21-year-old mega-prospect on defense. They can no longer get Nelson, as well as forwards Justin Bailey and Nick Baptiste, through to the Amerks without waivers.

And while Bailey and Baptiste's time in the organization could be in peril without a big showing in training camp, the Sabres seem to have Nelson in their plans and likely would not want to risk losing him.

The Sabres signed Nelson, 26, in May to a two-year, $1.625 million contract. That sends a big message. His waiver status does, too.

"I'm aware of it certainly, but I'm not going to be thinking about the whole waiver thing," Nelson said recently after a summer league game here in Da Beauty League. "I know it's there, but I have to keep playing my game. I have to keep improving, keep playing confident on the ice and be a team guy to earn my spot."

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Nelson, a Minnesota native who played three years at Minnesota State, was a college signee of the Sabres late in the 2015-16 season. He's spent time with both the Sabres and Amerks the last two seasons and his 2017-18 campaign saw 40 games in the AHL (two goals, nine assists) and 37 games in the NHL (three goals, five assists).

Because of the college time and late start to his NHL career, it's easy to forget that Nelson is 4 1/2 months older than Buffalo blueliner Nathan Beaulieu, 15 months older than Jake McCabe and nearly 2 1/2 years older than Rasmus Ristolainen.

That trio has combined to play 845 NHL games, far more than Nelson's 55.

"I know I'm not exactly a young guy anymore," said Nelson. "So even though I have less than a full season in the NHL, I already feel I have to be a leader as much as I can and that's my mindset preparing in the summer."

Nelson held a position like that last year in Rochester and his callup to Buffalo was one of the key reasons the Amerks struggled in the second half of the season. Those opportunities were why Nelson wanted to stay in Buffalo.

He had been a rare Group VI free agent, for players 25 or older who had appeared in three NHL seasons but fewer than 80 NHL games, and was less than two months from having the chance to be an unrestricted free agent when he re-signed.

"You could see the Sabres really put an emphasis on wanting to win in Roch," he said. "They had coaches, management and players with a track record of success. That first half was unbelievable down there, and to me it was just a start for this organization."

One way Nelson feels he can make impact in Buffalo this year is by improving his defensive play. Nelson did that last year in Rochester, going from a minus-10 player in 2016-17 to plus-14 last year. But he was a minus-14 during his time in the NHL.

"Consistency. That's the name of the game for us, and especially me," he said. "I'm more of a shutdown guy now, which is nice. You turn into that because you're often a point-a-game guy when you move into the NHL, but you're not going to be at that level.

"I love the idea of a newer role. I'm transitioning more into a guy who is using my skating to defend. I feel I can skate with just about anybody. I'm not a fancy guy, but I can defend and that's what you have to do to be in the NHL."

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