On Friday night I was absolutely awestruck by the performance of Casey Nelson. His struggles have been well documented this year, and before puck drop I thought there was a chance of handing out my first F. Instead, Nelson put together the best 60 minuets of hockey I have scouted this year, earning my first A+. I had him rated as the best player on the ice Friday, and that included a spectacular 50 save performance from Linus Ullmark.
Offensively, Nelson played a phenomenal game in all areas of the ice. When under pressure in the defensive zone, he played conservatively and did not turn the puck over; instead keeping the puck on the boards and getting it to an Amerk stick. On more than a few occasions, that meant taking thunderous checks behind the net, but Nelson was willing to take the blow. However, Casey was even more impressive when given time to lead the breakout, where he was consistently able to regroup behind the net and skate the puck out of the zone with pace.
Once in neutral ice Nelson put on a passing clinic. Whether it was a quick direct pass up the wing, or a long cross ice lead pass, he found a Rochester stick, and the puck always got deep in the offensive zone. Unlike earlier in the year, Nelson showed great patience when a clean passing lane was unavailable. Instead of forcing the issue and committing a turnover, he took his time to let plays develop and made good decisions all night. This has been a major weakness in Casey’s game this season, and I was happy to see him making progress.
It was in the offensive zone where Nelson was able to sign his name to the night. After making a pass to start the breakout, he made a blazing cut up the center of the ice. He received the puck with so much speed he was able to carry it into the zone and split the defensemen with ease. With time and space, he quickly picked his corner and opened the scoring for the night. His production did not stop there. After a pass cycled around the boards Nelson uncorked a first time slap shot right at the stick of the waiting Nick Baptiste. It fizzed off the ice and right over the glove of the helpless Utica net-minder. He found additional opportunities to put the puck into net traffic for the remainder of the game, and also made two great pinches at the point that led to scoring chances.
On the defensive side of the puck, Nelson equaled his offensive output. When defending on the rush, Comet forwards couldn’t get past him. He cut down angles very well, and was able to poke the puck away and clear the zone very effectively. On one occasion he showed magnificent instincts to cover for his less experienced partner. Martin was beat bad on a self-pass off the wall, but before he could even turn around to hang his head, Nelson had anticipated the action and cleared the puck. Though at times Casey has looked very green, he showed impeccable defensive instincts Friday night. He has showed flashes of brilliance in times of crisis, but has never looked this sharp for 60 minuets.
His aptitude for the game also showed in the way he handled his responsibilities in front of goal. Nelson was a consistent physical presence dealing with screening forwards. He was authoritatively able to lift his man’s stick and drive him away from the crease in several situations. On one occasion, while playing man to man, he harassed the 6-2, Brona Rendulic with such ferocity he gave up and left the offensive zone completely in an attempt to regroup. When Nelson was not clearing the net he covered his angles very well in the zone. So much so, that I counted 5 blocked shots from him. The most important aspect of his game was still his ability to quickly recover pucks and clear the zone without turning it over.
Nelson has had a very steep learning curve in Rochester. However, he has showed his potential to become an amazing defensemen at this level and the next. Both times I have scouted him, he has shown remarkable defensive instincts in moments of crisis. When he can keep his mental composure for 60 minuets, Casey has the potential to be every bit as good as Fedun, if not better. I am very encouraged to see if he can turn this game into a slingshot for his career and maintain a high level of play.