Minnesota State junior defenseman Casey Nelson has signed a free agent contract with the Buffalo Sabres.
Nelson is the quintessential example of a college late-bloomer. In his USHL Draft year as a high school sophomore, Nelson stood 5'6". When he graduated from high school, in his NHL Draft year, he was only 5'10". But after growing to 6'2" post-high school, Nelson had a break out season in his third year of junior with the Johnstown Tomahawks of the NAHL and earned an offer to Minnesota State.
His freshman year was a struggle. He was in and out of the Minnesota State line-up as the team's seventh defenseman, playing 19 games and scoring just one goal and four assists.
But his second season in Mankato was a breakout year. I wrote this January of his sophomore season in a game recap:
Casey Nelson had a number of those shot blocks, including the bullet he took late in the game(Mike Hastings described Nelson as "sore" and that he'd be evaluated later). Nelson also had an assist on the game-winning and generally played a solid all-around game. Quite the turnaround from last year at the North Star College Cup when Nelson played two of the worst periods imaginable in the Friday game before sitting the rest of the weekend. There might not be a more improved player in college hockey in the last 365 days.
Nelson began to use his tremendous offensive instincts and ability to generate shots to become an outstanding offensive defenseman. He tallied 7-26-33 in his sophomore season and helped leading Minnesota State to the school's first ever number one ranking.
Though he drew some interest after last season, he opted to return to Minnesota State for his junior season, a decision that proved wise. In December, TSN analyst Bob McKenzie listed Nelson has one of the top available free agents in this college class. He finished his final season in Mankato with a 6-16-22 scoring line and was one of college hockey's top all-around defensemen.
We ranked Nelson as the 85th-best prospect in college hockey this season:
Nelson is a skilled offensive defenseman that is tremendous at creating his own shot. He is calm and poised in the offensive zone and sees the ice well. He's really improved defensively over the past two seasons as well to become a player that plays major minutes for Minnesota State in every situation. He has potential as a second pairing defenseman at the NHL level that can provide some scoring punch from the blue line.