• Why Casey Nelson opted out of 2020–21 NHL season
• Variety of reasons behind Avs’ Cole deal
• Breaking down the Yandle situation in Florida
There are so many questions for Casey Nelson.
The most important is, “Are you okay?” But also: Why was he the only player to opt out of the 2020–21 NHL season? What prompted his retirement announcement on Instagram late last week? And then, once the serious stuff was out of the way, is it true that he once asked an AHL coach for permission to miss a morning skate because he had an oil change scheduled at the same time?
The 28-year-old starts laughing as he hears the question.
“When you said you wanted to ask if some things about me were true, I had a feeling that was one of the stories. Yes, that’s true. It was my first year (as a pro).”
What was the answer?
“It was like, ‘What did he just ask me?’”
In March 2016, Buffalo signed Nelson as an NCAA free agent from Minnesota State University, Mankato. The defenceman had four assists in seven games when he debuted at the end of that season. He’d play 86 more NHL games, adding 151 in the American League. His first of four NHL goals came on Feb. 11, 2018 — during a 5-4 loss to Colorado.
“Shorthanded wraparound by a defenceman,” he says proudly. “How many times has that happened?”
To people who know him, that’s vintage Casey Nelson. Great sense of humour. Independent. True to himself.
Here’s another example: Nelson’s a big cat person. He’s always been around them, and now has two — Randy and Gus. (Sabres assistant manager George Babcock once asked for a photo of them, and had it put up on the arena scoreboard one night after a Sabres win. Nelson still laughs in disbelief that that happened.)
Whether he played for Buffalo or the Rochester Americans, if the closest hotels to the rink didn’t allow pets, he wasn’t staying there. It didn’t matter if he had to move 20 or 30 minutes away. It didn’t matter if the hotel wasn’t as nice. No cats, no go.
“If anyone was going to opt out and retire,” one former teammate said, “it had to be someone like Casey. He wouldn’t be afraid of the unknown.”
The truth is, Nelson is like a lot of people re-assessing their lives during pandemic times. What mattered beforehand may not matter as much anymore. When the AHL season was shut down last March, he and his wife, Ashley, immediately packed up and drove 17 hours to their off-season home in Minnesota. The more time they spent there, the less Nelson felt the pull to return.
“I’m 100 per cent healthy, but there were challenges near the end of last season,” he says, specifying two concussions. “I was not excited to go back, even though I was preparing to. I actually got the email from the Sabres saying how camp was going to work.
“That’s when I decided not to go. I’m ready for something life-changing.”
Now is about the freedom to pursue passion projects, like travel and real estate. He’d spend hours looking at the website Zillow, and wants to be part of that world.
“I’m getting my licence. I love real estate. I love designing homes. We bought a neighbour’s property on Lake Minnetonka, and I’m excited to see what we’re going to do with it.”
Nelson doesn’t leave with negative feelings towards the sport. He’s watching games as this NHL season gets underway. Brother Josh is an assistant coach at USHL Muskegon, and Casey sees coaching as a possibility in his future.
But, in the present, he’s walking a new path.
1. With the cancellation of Tuesday’s Carolina/Nashville game, will the NHL have to consider pre-game rapid testing?
Each organization is split into different groups for testing purposes. Group 1 includes players; coaches; trainers; strength and conditioning coaches; equipment managers; massage, chiropractic and other performance personnel; physicians and dentists. Group 2A is GMs; assistant GMs; and other staff with access to Group 1.
These two groups are given a PCR test every morning. Those are very reliable — more accurate than rapid tests — but take longer to process. Will a second option contain spread in cases where PCR results don’t get back in time for games?
The NBA does both, and last week, in the midst of several cancellations, the league told teams a third daily test was a possibility.
2. We’re seeing the impact of injuries and what they’re going to do to rosters. I was a little surprised Colorado traded Ian Cole, but they’re nicked up, and that wreaks havoc with roster spots and cap space. His trade to Minnesota for Greg Pateryn (with the Avalanche keeping 18 per cent of Cole’s salary), creates flexibility and the ability to bank room for the trade deadline.
Minnesota GM Bill Guerin knows Cole well from Pittsburgh. That’s a good blue line for the Wild as the remodelling continues.
3. Apparently, New Jersey’s Tom Fitzgerald has a unique contract. He signed a long-term extension last year, but, when promoted to the GM chair last summer, was given a one-year contract for that specific position. We’ll see how that plays out. It’s early, but the Devils played Boston hard in taking three out of a possible four points in their season opener. Could have implications for them or possibly even Pittsburgh, where Fitzgerald worked before.
4. One Devil who looked back to his old self: Miles Wood. Very rough 2019–20 to the point New Jersey put him on the market. A return to previous form is huge for him — and them.
5. Jeff Marek asked a really good question on this week’s episode of 31 Thoughts: The Podcast: If the Dallas/Florida games hadn’t been postponed, would Keith Yandle’s consecutive-games streak have continued?
Here’s the most complete picture I can paint: Everything dates back to last summer’s playoffs, where the Panthers were eliminated by the Islanders. The players were embarrassed by that defeat, knowing they played poorly and had to change the way they competed. Their exit meetings were blunt and honest. Yandle’s name came up as one player who had to be better defensively, even from the mouths of his own teammates.
No one questioned his character — it’s not unusual for Yandle to hand over his per diem to someone in the organization making less than he does — but his own-zone play was a point of contention.
Florida definitely wanted to change its culture, make themselves harder to play against, and create internal pressure on its players to perform. New GM Bill Zito is no shrinking violet, coming from an organization (Columbus) that’s very demanding, and there were rumblings over the summer that Yandle wasn’t really in their plans, despite his no-move clause.
To give you an example, there was a wild rumour the Panthers wouldn’t invite him to camp, which obviously didn’t happen and I’m not sure that’s even allowed anyways. The Panthers denied they ever asked him to waive, which Yandle confirmed.
Where things really went off the rails is Yandle was very upset over the past couple of weeks because he felt his character was called into question — that he was made to feel it wasn’t about his play but his personality.
At some point over the past few days, several teammates stepped up and made it clear they felt he should be in the lineup. While those players agreed there needed to be an on-ice attitude adjustment, they didn’t feel Yandle’s character should be an issue and were angry it became one. You could see how happy they were when he scored on Sunday.
6. The next question is, where do we go from here? The simple answer is that play will dictate things. This story isn’t over. As an organization, Florida probably wouldn’t mind if the players used it as a rallying cry if it motivated them on the ice.
7. Finally, on Yandle: There’s a lot of speculation that he would be willing to waive to Boston. I’m not convinced there’s a match, however. The Bruins have been extremely careful not to add long-term money. It doesn’t fit their current activity.
8. This is 15-year-old Valdemar Andersen, Frederik’s younger brother:
He’s dressing for Denmark’s Herning Blue Fox Tuesday night, as their regular second- and third-string goalies are both injured. Here’s Frederik for the same team as an 18-year-old:
9. As you can imagine, there is grumbling from teams over the taxi-squad/waiver-wire goaltender situation. That goes double for the Canadian clubs, who need to deal with cross-border 14-day quarantines. As I write this, I’m told there are no plans to make changes/exceptions. The Devils claiming Aaron Dell ruined the most 2021 storyline you could imagine.
If Edmonton had claimed Dell, they could have kept him in Toronto until they showed up for Wednesday’s game against the Maple Leafs, possibly even starting him against them. Then they could have immediately travelled with him, since he was part of Toronto’s protocol. Instead, the Oilers have to wait for Troy Grosenick and Olivier Rodrigue to clear, which won’t be until they return home on Jan. 27 — at the earliest.
One of the problems with a “group goalie camp” to keep people sharp is that it doesn’t guarantee avoidance of protocol.
10. GM Ken Holland called Jimmy Howard about a reunion. Howard, at home with his family and happily coaching his children, appreciated the offer but declined. He is expected to announce his retirement in the near future.
11. Connor McDavid had six two-minute-long shifts in his first four games, including a 3:21 whopper in the opener against Vancouver. Some of that is power play, and, in at least one case, there was a commercial break involved, so it’s not necessarily as crazy as it sounds.
But it had me wondering who plays the most two-minute shifts. Last year, McDavid was tied for fifth with John Carlson (65 two-minute shifts). Top four: Jack Eichel and Oscar Klefbom (66); Leon Draisaitl (89); and Alex Ovechkin (109).
12. McDavid, annoyed by his face-off performance in last year’s playoffs (43 per cent), spent a ton of time working on it during the off-season with Keith and Will Acton. Keith, who played 1,023 NHL games and coached for another 18, is known for his attention to detail. Son Will, a 10-year pro, played 33 NHL games for the Oilers.
Keith didn’t want to discuss specifics — “That’s Connor’s story to tell,” he said — but word is McDavid made it a priority, and was determined to get better. He’s at 55.8 so far.
13. I’d heard earlier in the off-season that the Oilers and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins were getting close on an extension, but that’s gone quiet for awhile now.
14. Great timing award: seconds after one executive texted Pierre-Luc Dubois “hasn’t been himself in any of their games,” he scored against Detroit.
15. I do think there are some very, very good teams in the weeds on Dubois, waiting to see how the Blue Jackets handle this. I’d be very curious to know what Colorado and Tampa Bay think.
16. Pittsburgh’s been pretty clear in its interest in Jack Roslovic, who is waiting for a trade from Winnipeg. One source indicated the interest shouldn’t be tied to the Penguins’ first two losses. It’s something they’ve looked at for awhile.
17. AHL Manitoba could be hosting some Vancouver prospects. Laval might have some non-Canadiens, too.
18. Three games in, you can see how Kirill Kaprizov has breathed new life into the Wild. The late agent Don Baizley told a great story about two of his clients: Dave Gagner and Saku Koivu. Before Koivu arrived in Montreal, Gagner lined up for a face-off against him and decided to test him a bit. He slashed the Finnish centre, to see what would happen. Koivu glared at Gagner and slashed him right back. Baizley said that Gagner respected that.
I bring this up because Minnesota GM Bill Guerin could see some of his players testing Kaprizov during their camp.
“It wasn’t anything dirty or negative,” Guerin said. “They just wanted to see if he’d compete. He gave it right back. He’s got great enthusiasm, and guys like being around him.”
19. One of the biggest changes for Joe Thornton (aside from mailing address) is his role in touching the puck. Per Sportlogiq, no Shark had it more in the offensive zone the last three seasons than Thornton, an average of 0:48 per game (2017–18); 0:39 (2018–19) and 0:38 (2019–20). Through three games, he was ninth on the Maple Leafs, at 0:27.
20. Mitch Marner on Thornton, to Sportsnet’s Shawn McKenzie: “He does seem like a 20-year older version of me.”
21. Marner changed the flex of his stick from last season. Working with his long-time shooting guru, Rob Deveaux, the winger tested 80, 85 and 90 flexes, before choosing the 85 version. His previous was 75.
22. One longtime NHLer noticed a big difference in Ottawa’s opener, a 5–3 win over the Maple Leafs: “When they got ahead, Toronto consistently had to go through five players.”
That’s a big change from last year, and a positive sign. Another thing that was noticed? Austin Watson giving it to the Toronto bench late in that game. As you grow, you need some attitude.
“The pants are (Tim’s),” Tkachuk said. “His suits are back in Mannheim…. He had to borrow one of my jackets, just tried finding the smallest one possible.”
24. Two things coaches are concerned about as we get through this wild early start to the season: practices and staying power. We might never see a season with as few practices as this one. Travel schedules and rest time will limit them. If you think lack of structure leads to offence, then that’s a good thing.
As for staying power, there’s a concern about teams that fall out of the race early. I understand it, because everyone is competing under unique COVID-related stresses. Will those teams continue to compete, or will their play disintegrate fast?
25. Gambling is becoming more mainstream. The NHL, along with its teams and players, hope to financially benefit from it. At some point, everyone realizes that means a clearer injury list and announcing starting goalies, right? The NFL declares its rosters one hour before game time. Maybe that’s the answer.
26. In Game 1 against Winnipeg, Johnny Gaudreau’s offensive-zone starting percentage was 33. One game isn’t a great sample, but I wondered if that was going to be a new trend. After Game 3, he’s at 55. That sounds right.
27. One theory for Elias Pettersson’s slow start: Calgary was the wrong team for him to face early. Jacob Markstrom and Christopher Tanev know him well, and made sure the Flames knew how to disrupt where and how he likes to get the puck. We’ll see if this is legit, but you have to believe he’ll get going.
28. Early in the year, I always try to look at who plays the most five-on-five without getting scored on. First-weekend leader: Shea Theodore, at 61 minutes with zero goals against.
29. In a Martin Luther King Jr. Day interview with David Amber and Anthony Stewart, Willie O’Ree told a fantastic story about Jackie Robinson.
“I was playing baseball in my hometown back in 1949,” he said. “We won the championship that year, and the reward was to be taken to New York…. We went and saw Mr. Robinson play at Ebbets Field (the Dodgers didn’t leave Brooklyn for Los Angeles until 1958). After the game, I went down by the dugout, shook hands with Robinson, and told him that I not only played baseball but also hockey. He didn’t realize at the time that any Black kids played hockey. I said, ‘Yes, Mr. Robinson, there’s a few.’ He said, ‘Whatever sport you choose, work hard because there’s no substitute for hard work.’”
O’Ree was playing for the Los Angeles Gulls in 1962 when he received an invitation to an NAACP event in honour of Robinson. This was 13 years after the first meeting. “Mr. Robinson looked me right in the eye: ‘Willie, aren’t you the young fella I met in Brooklyn?’ It made a big impact on me. Of all the millions of people he met over the years, he singled me out and remembered me.”
I’m someone who tries and fails too often to remember names and faces. I wish I was as good as it as Jackie Robinson was.
30. When COVID-related shutdowns began, staff at the NHL Alumni office made sure to reach out to every alumnus aged 70 and older to make sure the organization knew what was needed. Now it is preparing to unveil the next phase of its care program for former players — a platform known as The Locker Room.
“Anything that makes tomorrow better than today,” said Glenn Healy, NHL Alumni President & Executive Director. “We loved structure: 10:30 morning skate, 12:30 meal, 4:00 p.m. bus, 5:00 p.m. power play meeting, 5:30 p.m. penalty kill, 6:40 warmup. 7:00 p.m. game, rinse and repeat. Some players hit the ground running upon retirement, but there are others who don’t. We need help and hope for people with functional integration issues. We’re not interested in the blame game, just hope and help.”
Healy compared it to a kind of Facebook site for alumni to find each other, communicate in a comfortable environment.
“No isolation for any alumnus. Connectivity worldwide.”
One of the goals is to allow players to control access to their medical records by “locking them” in a secure location. That way, if someone needs a procedure or a second opinion, they will have control over sharing that info and making it more easily accessible to the medical professionals who need it. The plan is to start a test with 10 players, then expand it 50 more at a time. All the best — I support anything that makes life easier.
31. Speaking of mental health, whenever I need a good, quick laugh, I check out the Instagram feed Pleasehatethesethings. It never fails. If you need something to ease a rough day, maybe it can help you, too.