The Sabres game on Saturday against the Kings was another in a long string of disappointing performances from a bad hockey team that was supposed to be not bad this year. Even worse it feels like there isn't much to be hopeful for beyond Eichel, Mittelstadt and maybe a player or two in Rochester like Brendan Guhle and CJ Smith. Yes Victor Olofsson is having a great year in the SHL, but I'd be wary of projecting him to be a serious contributor in the NHL. I'm not willing to give up on Alex Nylander because he is one of only six U20 players in the AHL, so it's reasonable to expect him to still improve against tough competition as he matures, but he's been less than stellar so far.
There is one player though that is standing out more than I would've expected since he's been up with Buffalo, and that's Casey Nelson. When he first got called up he seemed out of place and was only on the ice for 12-14 minutes a night, but his played has rapidly improved and in turn his minutes have shot up to 19-20 minutes a night in the last 8 games, even earning a spot matched up against Los Angeles' top line Saturday afternoon.
Beyond his run of 5 points in 6 games the last 2 weeks I decided to watch every shift from his game against LA to see what else, if anything, he's been doing away from the scoresheet that's causing him to stand out. In a game where basically everyone was trash, Nelson managed to make some excellent plays against tough competition.
Here are a few things that stood out to me from Saturday
Nelson begins by taking care of his responsibility in the slot preventing any easy passes into a high danger zone. As soon as the puck breaks loose he activates to the boards, but instead of flying in and trying to crush the LAK player he prevents him from going anywhere with the puck, lifts the stick and moves it to his center. It doesn't stop there, after Rodrigues gets the puck Nelson reads the play and sees an opening to jump up in the rush and creates a clean zone-entry himself which then leads to 3 shot attempts for Buffalo. So he wins a puck battle, moves the puck to his center, and joins the rush to create an offensive opportunity.
Here is Nelson matched up with Anze Kopitar, still one of the better centers in the NHL and Nelson plays him perfectly. On the 1v1 rush he's right around a stick length away from him and makes it so Kopitar's only move is to the outside where Nelson sticks right with him and forces Anze to turn the puck over. It's impressive for such a young player to remain so calm against one of the best in the game.
Here on the Penalty Kill he is in proper position guarding the slot area, but as soon as the puck gets out of the zone he turns on the jets and joins the rush. If his teammates could make a pass he would've earned him self a Grade A scoring chance. The clip doesn't go this far, but even after the puck gets passed him he sticks with it and makes sure the puck stays deep so LA doesn't get an easy transition back to the Buffalo zone.
I call this sequence the one-man re-group. Once he gets the puck he moves to the left to make a pass to Kane but sees he's well covered, so instead of forcing a bad pass he makes an escape move to open the ice up and attempts to make a pass to Kane, but once again he's well covered so Nelson makes a nice crossover move to open up a passing lane and hits O'Reilly on the tape.
This is a short clip, but Nelson reads the play well and pinches hard on the LAK winger which allows the puck to move to an open Rodrigues up the boards.
Instead of waving his stick at a puck he has little chance of getting, Nelson sticks with his man and lifts the stick at the right moment allowing the puck to get free and be picked up by his center for a quick transition.
In the neutral zone Nelson keeps a good gap and as soon as LA makes the pass he steps up on the winger causing a turnover. So many Sabres defenseman seem to always be caught too deep on the rush back into their zone which gives the attackers far too much room to work with. Here Nelson takes away all time and space with the puck and it forces a turnover.
One last thing that stands out is his patience with the puck. He very rarely panics with the puck. He sort of reminds me of a Quarterback making his reads and finding the best pass option. Now Reinhart may not have been the best option here but his patience with the puck is impressive along with his consistent ability to hit his forwards on the tape.
I don't expect Nelson to be a #1 defenseman but he's showing signs that he could be a valuable piece on the Sabres defense. I can imagine him working well as a compliment on paring with a true top end defenseman when the Sabres decide to finally not be terrible. In the meantime he is one of the few players I find my self interested in watching down the stretch of this otherwise forgettable season.