It’s Valentine’s Day, 2015. Andrej Nestrasil, less than three months removed from a waiver claim moving him from Detroit to Carolina, scores a goal in the Hurricanes 6-3 loss at Minnesota.
The tally begins the best month of the young Czech’s rookie season. From then through March 15, he scores four goals and 13 points in 14 games, more than tripling his career point total. But then a slump – and perhaps some regression too – catches up to Nestrasil. He records just one point over the club’s final 14 matches of the season.
His offensive struggles carry over into the early going of 2015-16. On Nov. 6 against Dallas, Nestrasil fails to record a point for the ninth time in nine games and plays just 8:56 of ice time.
The next night, the Wild are back up on the schedule, and the 24-year-old finally breaks his goose egg with a goal in the 3-2 overtime defeat. Getting the pressure off his back seems to begin a gradual improvement in play. By Valentine’s Day of 2016, Nestrasil fever has swept through Raleigh at a temperature comparable to that of Jussi Jokinen in 2009 or Jiri Tlusty in 2013.
In the last month – since January 12, to be specific – Nestrasil has tallied four goals and nine points in 12 games, capped by back-to-back starring performances in arguably the most important and in-the-spotlight weekend that the Hurricanes have had in years.
On Friday, with the ‘Canes looking fated for a disheartening 1-0 loss to a sharp Marc-Andre Fleury and the Penguins, Nestrasil sniped the tying goal past Fleury’s short side with just 5:18 remaining – delighting his mother and grandmother, who were attending their first-ever NHL game.
And on Saturday, Nestrasil provided the net-front presence and originally was given credit for Noah Hanifin’s second period goal to put the Hurricanes up 2-0 on the Islanders. Not to be denied from the ‘G’ column, he finished off a perfectly executed 2-on-1 with Joakim Nordstrom to increase the advantage to 4-0 later that period.
Nestrasil's 2nd goal pic.twitter.com/gH3gur0QQ8
— Stephanie (@myregularface) February 14, 2016
Nestrasil has always been a smart, versatile player with good vision and excellent hockey sense. That’s been evident since his first day with the team and been reflected in his deployment on the third line most every day since.
But the development of his shot (and his confidence to shoot) has transformed him from a gritty offensive player needing tipped shots to score to a truly dangerous playmaker and shooter in his own right. He’s still a long way from Jeff Skinner level, but Nestrasil’s two strikes this past weekend alone exemplified the dynamic new skills he’s developing inside the blue line.
That growth has been reflected in the team’s overall offensive potency when No. 15 is on the ice, as shown well by this chart of team scoring chances for and against per 60 minutes of Nestrasil ice time:
This ongoing incredible stretch for Nestrasil begins roughly at the ‘A’ in “Against” in that chart. As one can easily see, it’s been a pretty good month for him, even in the often murkier universe of advanced stats.
Perhaps most encouraging to see is that the red line – the frequency of opponents’ scoring chances against Nestrasil – has steadied, then fallen, while the ‘SC For’ line has been rising. It shows that Nestrasil’s new scoring pace is truly resulting from an improvement in play rather than a mere higher prioritization of offense over defense.
Back in November 2014, Detroit passed up safely retaining their 2009 third-round pick in favor of risking his future with the organization in order to fit Stephen Weiss into the starting lineup. Then-coach Mike Babcock told a reporter at the time that Nestrasil wasn’t “quite ready for this level.”
The decision hasn’t worked out well. Weiss was bought out last summer and is no longer playing hockey; Nestrasil, meanwhile, is steadily evolving into one of the more valuable, versatile forwards on Carolina’s roster.
When Nestrasil celebrates his 25th birthday next Monday, he’ll do so as an increasingly critical piece in the Hurricanes’ increasingly viable playoff aspirations.