Buffalo Sabres coach Phil Housley simply can’t say enough about 26-year-old defenseman Casey Nelson.
“Casey’s had a strong camp,” Housley said Thursday at KeyBank Center. “Every game he’s played in, he’s brought something different. I just like his reliability. He’s someone you can trust and put in all situations. He faced that a lot last year. He was playing a lot minutes for us, was playing up in the lineup, so he brings that stability back there, that we need.”
Nelson, from Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., became a fixture on Buffalo's defense in four preseason games. He stepped into the Sabres' preseason lineup and provided necessary depth on a unit that was hit by injuries in September.
Defenseman Zach Bogosian sustained a lower body injury Tuesday in a 4-2 loss to against Columbus in Clinton, N.Y., and Rasmus Ristolainen did not play in a 5-1 loss Wednesday at Pittsburgh because of an upper body injury.
“Injuries happen,” said Nelson, who played for three seasons at Minnesota-Mankato. “It’s part of the game. There’s not really a way to go about it. You can’t plan for anything, because stuff just happens. There’s not a lot you can plan for, but we just have to believe in each other, no matter who’s in the lineup, and go from there.”
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Nelson doesn’t have a pronounced offensive touch, but brings quickness and a strong defensive presence to the ice. He scored two goals and nine assists in 40 games with Rochester of the AHL in 2017-18, then joined the Sabres in January and scored two goals and nine assists in 37 games.
With a rash of injuries to Buffalo’s defensemen in the preseason, Nelson will be more than a fresh body on the blue line. Nelson’s sound health helps his value to the Sabres' defense as it regroups.
The Sabres have juggled their defensive pairings because of the injuries, which paired Nelson with rookie Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in the NHL Draft in June, on Tuesday.
Nelson provided a presence that put the 18-year-old rookie, who is regarded as a foundation for the future of the Sabres’ defense, at ease on the ice.
“He’s a smart D, and he can handle the puck well,” Dahlin said. “He never put me in a hard situation. He read the game well, and he was easy to play with.”
The pairing allowed Nelson to open up his game, too. Nelson scored his first preseason goal at 1:13 of the second period, and has a goal and an assist in three preseason games as the Sabres prepare to close the exhibition season Friday against the New York Islanders in Oshawa, Ont. (7 p.m., 550 AM).
“We worked off each other pretty well,” Nelson said. “I told him to kind of do his thing. He likes to get up in the play and help out the forwards as much as he can, but I just tried to be somewhat of a rock for him and be solid for him and for our forwards coming back.”
Productivity will be a goal for Buffalo’s defense. Last season, a defenseman didn’t score for the Sabres until December, but defensemen Nelson, Jake McCabe and Nathan Beaulieu already have scored in four preseason games.
“We have the capability in the defense to put the puck in the back of the net,” Nelson said. “I think the faster we can come out of our zone, the quicker our weak side D can get up the ice. That’s where my goal came from, a quick breakout.”
Injury update: Seven players didn’t practice Thursday afternoon at HarborCenter: defensemen Bogosian, Ristolainen, Marco Scandella and Brandon Hickey, and forwards Conor Sheary, Johan Larsson, and Jack Eichel.
Larsson sustained a foot injury Wednesday in Pittsburgh, and Sheary did not return after sustaining an upper body injury the first weekend of training camp.
“Just to make everything clear, the guys who weren’t on the ice will not be coming on the trip tomorrow (to Oshawa),” Housley said after practice. “They’ve got some minor ailments. They’re all day-to-day. Just precautionary and we’ve got a lot of games this week, so we’re erring on the side of caution.”
Heading to Rochester: The Sabres released an updated training camp roster of 32 players. They have assigned five players to Rochester of the AHL: goalie Scott Wedgewood, defensemen Will Borgen and Taylor Fedun, and forwards Rasmus Asplund and Victor Olofsson.
Next: The Sabres won’t have a morning skate Friday in Oshawa, and will opt for team-bonding exercises before their matchup with the Islanders.