Andrej Nestrasil didn’t know what jersey number he’d have when he joined the Carolina Hurricanes.
Claimed on waivers in November from the Detroit Red Wings, Nestrasil first thought of asking for No. 63, once worn by the late Josef Vasicek. A native of the Czech Republic, Nestrasil wanted to honor a fellow Czech forward he admired and has tried to emulate.
“During the (2004-2005) NHL lockout year he was back home playing and I got to see him a lot,” Nestrasil said. “My father always told me, ‘This is the type of player you’re probably going to be one day – big, heavy.’”
Vasicek, a member of the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup champions, was playing for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League when he died in the September 2011 crash of the team plane. The Canes wore “No. 63” patches in memory of “Big Joe.”
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“I thought it would be cool to wear 63,” Nestrasil said. “But then I thought would people think it’s a bad thing I picked it, or not understand it’s a way to honor him.”
Instead, Nestrasil picked No. 15. It was available, sounded good and he took it.
“And I didn’t realize Tuomo Ruutu was No. 15 here,” Nestrasil said, flashing his gap-toothed smile.
Ruutu, an aggressive, body-banging forward, was a popular player for the Canes before being traded to the New Jersey Devils last season.
“I then thought I should have taken something else because he’s a really hard guy to compete with and win the fans over,” Nestrasil said.
But Nestrasil, 24, may be doing just that. In 27 games with Carolina since being acquired Nov. 20, he has six goals and 11 assists while giving the Canes some physical play.
Of his plus-9 rating, the best on the team, Nestrasil said, “I just do things on the back end to see (opponents) don’t score and I don’t cheat offensively. Just wait for the chances to come and play good in both ends of the ice.”
Nestrasil, who had two assists Sunday in the Canes’ 3-2 road victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets, is providing more offense of late – five goals and nine assists in the past 16 games. He can play all three forward positions, although he has been used mostly at right wing or center by the Hurricanes.
“He’s been real good,” Canes coach Bill Peters said. “He’s a big body and we wanted to get bigger, obviously. He’s a young guy and he’s got upside to him.
“There’s a lot to like. He goes to the net, he’s hard on pucks in the offensive zone and he’ll have a good summer this summer to get quicker and stronger and come back a better player.”
Nestrasil, a third-round draft pick by the Wings in 2009, said he once was bigger but not stronger. Now 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, he said he once played at 220 but didn’t like the extra weight.
Nestrasil changed his conditioning program last summer in the Czech Republic, setting up a year-round routine, and came into the Red Wings’ training camp this year at 195 pounds with six-percent body fat. He’s paying closer attention to nutrition, saying he doesn’t buy groceries or keep food around his apartment because, “When I get bored, I go straight to the kitchen and I eat.”
Nestrasil also said he quit drinking sodas – he calls it “pop” – because of the sugar intake. Now, it’s mostly water.
“I wanted to prove a point and show I’m committed to doing whatever it takes to make a team,” he said. “At the same time I know there are things I have to improve.”
The Red Wings were hoping to slip Nestrasil through waivers in November and reassign him to their AHL team. The Canes got him and Nestrasil said he plans to stick with No. 15 and try and make it his own.
“People know me that way now,” he said.
NOTE: Rookie defenseman Rasmus Rissanen suffered an MCL injury Sunday against the Columbus Blue Jackets and will be out three to four weeks, general manager Ron Francis said Monday.