If there was one word that described Andrej Nestrasil’s 2016-17 campaign, it would be “challenging.”
Nestrasil, a former third-round pick who had established himself as a full-time NHLer over the previous two seasons with Carolina, was struggling to stay in the lineup with the Hurricanes to start the 2016-17 season. He found himself serving as a healthy extra more often than not, something that made it tough for him to get into a rhythm after a lengthy injury cut his previous campaign short.
With the goal of getting Nestrasil into games, the Hurricanes put the 26-year-old forward on waivers and assigned him to Charlotte, something that he saw as a positive move.
“I feel like when I got here, at first I was really excited that I could play,” said Nestrasil. “I felt like the first 15 games were really good and I showed that I can play and be an NHL player.”
A look at the numbers seems to back that claim up as well. In his first 18 games as a Checker, Nestrasil collected 10 points (4g, 6a) and was a fairly consistent force for the team.
But then the trade deadline came.
There was an air of uncertainty throughout March 1, as there was a chance Nestrasil would find himself moving to another club or back up with Carolina. But the deadline came and went and not only was he still a member of the Hurricanes, he remained in Charlotte. From there Nestrasil’s numbers took a dive, as he tallied just four points in his next 21 games.
“After that deadline I was mentally down because I didn’t expect that I would still be here,” said Nestrasil. “I kind of pressured myself too much because I thought if I want to have good job next year I need to put up points and be the best player on the ice every night. If you’re not happy, and I’m not saying not happy with what’s going on here, but if you’re not 100 percent mentally and then you put pressure on yourself, it’s not going to go your way.”
That’s not to say his game completely fell off over that stretch. It just seemed like the bounces just weren’t going his way, and it spiraled from there.
“I feel like there was a period of like 15 to 18 games where I didn’t put up points but some of those games I felt like I played really good hockey,” said Nestrasil. “I remember one game where I had like six shots and one even went off the post and I made a nice play for someone back door but we didn’t score and then I go to the bench and the next line goes out and they do the same exact play and they score. And you’re sitting there and you’re happy for the guys but in the back of your head you’re like ‘We just did the same thing, how did ours not go in?’ And it snowballs from there and it’s hard to get out of it.”
The mental aspect of the game really came to the forefront for Nestrasil as he battled to keep his emotions in check while regaining confidence in his game.
“A big part of sports is your mental health,” he said. “You have to be mentally, well I don’t want to say tough, because I am. But you have to be happy. If you’re happy and you don’t pressure yourself too much and you know you’re in a good spot and you know that you’re going to go out there, you’re more likely to score and have points.”
While he tried to shake himself out of that slump, Nestrasil was also shuffled across the lineup down the stretch, playing all three positions at different times up and down the lineup.
“It’s not that I mind playing any of the positions,” he said. “I’m just not a big fan of playing left wing. But I think the bigger thing is that it’s always better for a player to spend a longer time playing one position. They moved me to center and then I played there over the next 15 games and I was feeling more comfortable. I hadn’t played center in a long time so I was learning things again and making sure I was in the right spots. Then after game eight, game nine it comes more naturally and you don’t have to think about it as much.
“That’s nothing against their decision making. I’m a player so if they need me here, I’m going to play here, if you need me there I’m going to play there. That’s completely fine. I’m just saying it’s always better for a player to play in one spot. But it’s part of hockey and it’s something that you have to deal with.”
Eventually, with the help of the coaching staff, Nestrasil was able to pull things together and become a contributor again.
“I feel like toward the end of the season, like the last five or six games plus the playoffs, I was able to kind of let it go,” said Nestrasil. “Not completely, but I feel like I was playing better hockey.”
“He did struggle at times, both with himself and his physical capabilities and his mindset of being in the AHL and not playing the role he wanted to,” said head coach Ulf Samuelsson. “It was a hard year for him but I thought he had some really good games down the stretch.”
Despite the frustration that manifested during his stay, Nestrasil harbored nothing but positive thoughts about the Checkers and their personnel.
“Here in Charlotte the coaching staff were great and the guys were amazing,” said Nestrasil. “Obviously the fact that we were on a winning streak and had that run made it more enjoyable because when the team is winning and you’re playing well and fighting for a playoff spot it’s always a good atmosphere. I told the coaches it would have been better under different circumstances. I feel like they’ve been doing a pretty good job and trying to help me and the guys were playing really well so I can’t complain about it.”
With this up-and-down season in the books, the sights are now set to what next year will hold for the talented forward. To the coaching staff who watched him through it, there’s still a belief that Nestrasil can be an impact player at the next level.
“Nesty has had a tough year,” said Samuelsson. “I don’t think he’s quite back to the player he can be, but I think he will next year with a full summer of hard training, I think he’ll be in the NHL somewhere, I’m not sure if it’s with the Hurricanes or somewhere else. He’s got a lot of skill and he’s a good player.”
But before that thought process even comes up, the first thing on Nestrasil’s schedule is a break.
“To be honest, I forbid myself from thinking about it,” said Nestrasil of his future plans. “I need to step back and relax and recharge my battery and think. I feel like I’m going to see everything in a different light three weeks from now. Obviously I have thought about all the options I might or might not have, but I don’t really want to say that I would do this or that right now. I feel like I need to clear my mind first and get a break so I can look at it from a different perspective.”