Photo Credit: Pat Christman/Mankato Free Press
Out of the Shadow
Written by Shane Frederick for the Mankato Free Press
A year ago, he was Josh Nelson’s kid brother, a freshman on the Minnesota State men’s hockey team, a young defenseman sometimes thrown into circumstances he wasn’t quite ready for, a rookie learning on the job.
Today, Casey Nelson is his own man.
The sophomore may be the Mavericks’ most-improved player from a season ago, giving the team’s defensive corps a much-needed extra boost of offense.
Nelson enters this weekend’s WCHA home series against Lake Superior State on an eight-game point-scoring streak, racking up 11 of his 18 points over that span, and his point totals put him on par with some of the best defensemen in the country, including one of his own teammates.
“Stuff’s kind of going my way,” he said. “A lot of bounces first half.”
Those good bounces have him first in the conference and third in the nation among defensemen. Eleven of his points have come on the power play, which also ranks first in the WCHA.
As a freshman, Nelson was in and out of the lineup, playing in 19 games and compiling just five points. Some of his playing time came when his brother, then-senior Josh missed significant time due to injury.
“Last year, I was put up into the mix a little early,” Casey said. “I couldn’t handle it. I was just younger and not experienced. I feel more comfortable this year.
“Honestly, I think it’s the group of guys we’ve got here. I’ve got support. It really helps.”
Mavericks coach Mike Hastings said Nelson’s emergence isn’t a complete surprise. Assistant coach Todd Knott didn’t recruit him because he was Josh’s little brother; he saw a 6-foot-2 defenseman who could shoot the puck and help the power play. In his final year of junior hockey, Casey led the North American Hockey League in shots on goal.
“He needed to time to add some strength and to mature mentally along with his physical maturity,” Hastings said. “His best attribute is his hockey sense, his hockey head. … And you can see him not being panicked out there. He has puck poise.”
Nelson, who has five goals, credited MSU’s offseason workouts program for his added strength, praising strength and conditioning coach Tom Inkrott specifically.
“I wasn’t sure I was going to get this production like I have,” Nelson said.
“But definitely Tommy in the summer. He pushes us hard, and can’t thank him enough. And the guys push each other.”
Now he finds himself in the unlikely position of leading the Mavericks’ defensemen in scoring. Through 19 games, he’s three points ahead of senior and first-team All-WCHA pick Zach Palmquist, who has been the team’s top-scoring blueliner in each of his first three seasons.
“I look a lot at Palmer, and I learn a lot from him every day,” Nelson said.
“He’s one guy I really look up to.”
Having a pair of defensemen putting up points consistently has been a big part of why Minnesota State ranks among the top scoring teams in the country.
“I can’t stress enough the importance of creating offense from the blue line,” Hastings said. “It makes us more of a complete offensive team; it makes us a lot more dangerous.”
Nelson still looks up to his big brother, who continues to live in Mankato and is now an assistant coach for one of the midget teams at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault. But Casey is already up to 23 points for his career — just four shy of Josh’s career total.