By Dan Scifo
From the Point Contributor
PITTSBURGH – It hasn’t taken long for former Johnstown Tomahawks’ standout defenseman Casey Nelson to adjust to the National Hockey League.
Nelson signed an entry level contract as a free agent with the Buffalo Sabres last Tuesday and made his NHL debut four days later against the Winnipeg Jets where he picked up his first career point.
The Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin native returned to his adopted Western Pennsylvania hometown a week later as the first former Tomahawks player to skate in a NHL game.
Nelson finished with two secondary power-play assists and a minus-2 rating in 14:05 of ice time during the Penguins’ 5-4 shootout win on Tuesday. He has four assists and is plus-1 through three games this season.
“It’s pretty surreal,” Nelson said before the game. “It doesn’t even seem real yet. It’s a great feeling and I’m getting a lot of support from back home from all my friends and family. I wouldn’t be here without them.”
That includes Johnstown where Nelson was part of the first Tomahawks team during the 2012-13 North American Hockey League season. Nelson, who played with the NAHL team in Palmer, Alaska two years prior, appreciated the moved to Johnstown, finishing with 10 goals and 32 points in 56 games while also playing in the 2013 NAHL Top Prospects Tournament.
“It was actually a big opportunity for us to come back because there are a lot more colleges on the East coast and potential (to play in front of more) scouts,” Nelson said. “It was definitely a good move for the team and I think that’s why they’re doing so well now.”
Nelson was back in the Pittsburgh area Tuesday where he attended a Penguins’ game and made several trips to PNC Park to watch the Pirates while living in Johnstown. He recently caught up with billet brother and Johnstown native Cody Boyd, who is playing Division I hockey at Buffalo-based Canisius College, and met billet parents Rick Boyd – general manager of the Tomahawks – and his wife Tammy after Tuesday’s game against the Penguins.
“It’s a really cool feeling to be back,” Nelson said. “It kind of feels like home even though I was only here for a year.”
Cambria County recognized Nelson prior to Tuesday’s game when President Commissioner Thomas Chernisky presented him with a certificate and offered congratulations on reaching the NHL.
“Cambria County and Johnstown is very proud of him and we just wanted to show support as the first player from the Tomahawks to make it to the NHL,” Chernisky said. “It’s special for the whole community and our region to know that you can make it to the NHL and he’s a great example of that.”
The 23-year-old Nelson tallied his first career point when he assisted on Hudson Fasching’s first NHL goal Saturday against Winnipeg. He also notched an assist at Detroit on Monday before tallying two on Tuesday, making Nelson the first Sabres player to record points in his first three NHL games since Calle Johansson in 1987-88.
“It’s going great,” Nelson said. “The guys and coaches are helping a lot and it’s really helping me become more comfortable out there. Overall, it has been a great experience.”
Former Penguins’ coach Dan Bylsma, who currently coaches the Sabres, is impressed with Nelson’s speed, quickness and skating ability. He played a season-high 16:33 against Winnipeg and was has been used on the team’s second power-play unit.
“I think the biggest thing that is real noticeable is his heads-up play and the way he makes plays with the puck,” Bylsma said.
“The play he made for our second goal (Monday) in Detroit, he fakes a shot and slides a pass right on the tape to (Sam Reinhart) for the goal. That’s a unique ability to see from a kid who just stepped into the lineup.”
The 6-foot-2, 183-pound Nelson was a three-year letterwinner at Minnesota State and named the 2015-16 Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) Defensive Player of the Year. He finished with 14 goals and 60 career points in 99 games at Minnesota State, good for 10th on the school’s all-time scoring list among defensemen.
Nelson, who was a plus-29 in three years at Minnesota State, ranked fourth in scoring during his junior season with six goals and 22 points in 40 games, while leading a defensive unit that allowed the fewest shots per game in the NCAA this season.
He decided to forgo his senior season at Minnesota State after the Maverick’s 2-1 loss against Ferris State in the WCHA Final Five, but it wasn’t an easy decision.
“I kind of had to make the decision over the full year,” Nelson said. “At Christmas, I told my coach I was coming back. At the time, I thought that was the right decision, but from then on, I just kind of focused on the year and that’s when I started playing better hockey.
“Towards the end of the year, I didn’t think about what I was going to do after the year, and at the end of the day, after that last loss, I thought it was the best decision for me.”