Hurricanes’ Nestrasil Gone, Maybe Forgotten

Andrej Nestrasil is no longer with the Carolina Hurricanes and he may soon be forgotten. It’s the climax of a story that had incredible potential to blossom but withered on the vine; a tale of unrealized promise. It makes me a bit melancholy when I look back to just one year ago.

Andrej Nestrasil (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Nestrasil and “The Line”

Not so long ago, in the latter half of the 2015-16 season, Nestrasil was part of something special, a forward line on the Hurricanes that was operating like a well-oiled machine. Along with Jordan Staal and Joakim Nordstrom, Nestrasil was playing well, causing observers to talk about the line with genuine excitement.

In a piece written in December 2015, Chip Alexander of the News & Observer in Raleigh, dubbed the trio as “the checking line.” Alexander wrote,

The line has been together for about 15 games, giving Peters size, speed, defense and the ability to go out against the other team’s best forwards and contain them.

Staal has always been looked to as the big, heavy guy in the middle, and with Nordstrom and Nestrasil flanking him, they were playing heavy as a unit. Alexander also quoted the Hurricanes’ head coach as saying,

They complement each other well. They have an identity. They’re comfortable with the way they’re supposed to play and they bring it each and every night.

The three had obvious chemistry and were fun to watch as the team battled to make the 2016 playoffs.

Injury to Nestrasil Breaks the Line

Everything was going along smoothly. Their reliability was taken for granted every time they hit the ice. But, as can often be the case in sports, an injury out of the blue turned things upside down. On February 25, 2016, Nazem Kadri hit Nestrasil, sending him flying into the boards and straight onto his lower back.

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Nestrasil was in obvious pain after the Kadri hit, and on March 1, Hurricanes general manager, Ron Francis said that Nestrasil had a broken vertebra and would be out for the remainder of the season. Just like that, the “checking line” had checked out, its full potential would not be realized that season.

It was quite a blow to the Hurricanes. The team scratched and clawed their way to barely missing a spot as a wild card in the playoffs. All Nestrasil could do was watch and wonder if things could have turned out differently, if they would have made the playoffs had he not been sidelined.

New Year, Old Line, New Nestrasil

A year ago, I had the chance to talk with Nestrasil and other members of the Hurricanes during media day. His eyes were bright with excitement, full of energy and anticipation for the upcoming season. I wrote about our conversation in “Hurricanes’ Andrej Nestrasil Ready and Thankful“. One thing he said was that he had a newfound thankfulness for his opportunity to play in the NHL:

I’ve been here a week now skating with the guys. It’s been awesome. It just gives you a new perspective that you should enjoy being on the ice every day. Not that I didn’t before, I did. But, you realize it even more that you’re really blessed that you do what you, and that you have the chance to get out there every day.

At that moment, I felt that he was a player who “gets it”, and who is ready to give his best effort to help his team succeed. At the forefront of my mind was how he felt about “getting the band back together,” so to speak. Did he want to try to re-create the chemistry he had with Staal and Nordstrom before he was injured? Nestrasil said,

Speaking for myself, I wish we could start that way again. I really liked playing on that line. I liked the role that we were kind of like a shut-down line but at the same time we could contribute offensively. That’s great, that’s added value to the team.

There it was, the reality that if it was up to him the line would reunite, and I thought, “Yes!” Visions of the ‘Canes making the playoffs started to form. With “the checking line” back together and young new talent like Sebastian Aho coming on board, there would be hockey in May in Carolina again.

Carolina Hurricanes right wing Andrej Nestrasil (15) during the NHL game between the Dallas Stars and the Carolina Hurricanes at the PNC Arena. Photo By: Andy Martin Jr

When I asked Staal and Nordstrom later that day about getting back together with Nestrasil, they both responded positively. Staal said he thought they made some good strides together and had fun.

But, like many best laid plans, things did not play out as I had envisioned. Although Nestrasil was ready, and getting the line back together was feasible, nothing was further from the way things played out.

No Nestrasil, No Line Reunion

Last season, Nestrasil was often a healthy scratch. When he did get to play, it was painfully obvious that the chemistry with Staal and Nordstrom was missing and maybe even gone. There was no explanation for sitting him other than that Peters saw something he didn’t like or didn’t see something he felt was essential to keeping Nestrasil in the lineup.

Nine months ago, Matthew Barlowe at Cardiac Cane considered what happened and shared a common sentiment about Nestrasil:

There are a couple of theories about why Nestrasil hasn’t played as well this season.  One is that last season could have been just an outlier and that Nestrasil actually outplayed his skill level.  But the stats just don’t tell that story.  His CF% and Relative CF% the year before last were also great as well with a 54.88 and 2.24 respectively.  Another theory is that maybe his injury is still hampering him…So what is actually wrong with Nestrasil?  Basically, nothing is wrong with him.  He’s just had a run of bad luck and hasn’t been given enough ice time for things to even out.

That was the bottom line. Nestrasil needed time on the ice to get back into a groove, and he just wasn’t getting that time. He played 19 games for the Hurricanes last season.

Nestrasil: I’m Out

Nestrasil made his feelings known in an interview with a Czech newspaper and they were not the feelings of the same bright-eyed excited player I interviewed a few months prior. Brian LeBlanc wrote about the interview and provided the translation at Canes Country. Nestrasil said,

They didn’t give me much a chance after the injury. It’s a big learning experience for me….I’m done here, 100%, and I don’t want to stay here. This was such a frustrating and mentally draining year that I’m not going to repeat it. Still fifteen games left, so we’ll see. The worst part is that I’m playing for people and a team that doesn’t want me. And now I don’t want to play for them.

Wow. The change was dramatic, and the frustration I felt as a member of the media and as a fan who was sympathetic to his complaint, pales exponentially in comparison to how he felt as a player. As a free agent, he made the decision to leave the Hurricanes and has found a new home. He recently posted on Instagram that he is excited to be playing in the KHL with HC Niznekamsk a Russian team.

So there it is. A tale of two seasons. One starting with hope and another with an empty locker room slot. Whatever went on behind closed doors between Nestrasil and Peters or Francis is really not important now. The Hurricanes have moved on and have filled that locker room slot and others with new faces and a renewed hope of making the playoffs.

Nestrasil is gone, likely forgotten by many. But, I’ll never forget the hope in his eyes and the gratitude he expressed to get a chance to play. I wish him all the best.