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Nystrom fitting in well with Stars’ checking line

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

While it’s true that Eric Nystrom probably wouldn’t be here if the Dallas Stars didn’t need to add salary to remain above the NHL’s salary cap floor, there’s no question that they’re glad he is a part of their organization now.

The 28-year-old left winger was acquired Oct. 12 from Minnesota in exchange for future considerations, a deal initiated by Dallas in response to the New York Rangers’ demotion of former Star Sean Avery to the minors. Because Dallas is still on the hook for half of Avery’s salary, when he was sent down, he came off both the Stars’ and Rangers’ salary cap list, pushing Dallas below the payroll minimum.

Eric Nystrom Highlights
General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk acknowledged that the Avery situation was the genesis of the trade, but insisted it was still done to try to improve the hockey club and it appears to have done that. Through the first 11 games of 2011-12, the Stars have bolted out to a stellar 8-3-0 start, including a 4-2-0 mark in the six games Nystrom has suited up for.

“Eric is a hard-working forward who kills penalties and will help with the depth of our current roster,” Nieuwendyk said.

The truth is, Nystrom is exactly the type of player that both Nieuwendyk and coach Glen Gulutzan reference when they’ve said they want to be a team that’s harder to play against.

At 6-foot-1 and 193 pounds, he’s not the most imposing guy in the world, but like his father, former New York Islander grinder Bob Nystrom, Eric plays physical, possesses impressive speed and is a gritty penalty killer who will think nothing of hurling himself in front of an opponent’s slap shot or absorbing a crunching check to make a play.

“Nys is the kind of player that we want here, a hard-working guy willing to do the little things to win, and obviously comes from a great background and pedigree,” Gulutzan said. “He’s a hockey player and he’s been a real nice addition. He gives us some speed, some strength on the wing, another penalty killer. He’s a guy that can play center, so he has versatility. He’s been a welcome addition for us.”

In the six games he’s played since arriving in Dallas, Nystrom already ranks seventh on the club with 19 hits while chipping in with his first goal of the season in the Stars’ 5-3 loss to Los Angeles on Oct. 27. The fifth-year NHLer has fit in very well on the checking line alongside center Vernon Fiddler and right winger Radek Dvorak, contributing a strong, gritty, defensively-sound game, while also providing solid penalty killing.

“It’s been a good adjustment,” said Nystrom, who registered a career-high 169 hits last season with Minnesota, second-most on the club. “When I got here, the coaching staff made sure that I watched a lot of video and we went over the way the team plays and I just try to apply that on the ice. Playing with Fidds and Devo the past few games has been a real easy transition. We’re all on the same page and they’re easy guys to read off of, and this team is doing so well because we’re all on the same page, so it’s been easy to step in.”

“I think we’re getting better and better every game,” said Fiddler of the trio. “I still don’t think we’ve played our best, but we’re a line that has to create more than we give up. We still got a little ways to go, but I think we’re getting better, we’re getting zone-time, getting a little more action in their end, and that’s what we have to do.”

After usual right winger Adam Burish patrolled the left wing on that line with Fiddler and Dvorak for the first several games, Nystrom’s arrival allowed Gulutzan to deploy Burish at his more natural position again while upgrading the Stars’ overall sandpaper quotient.

“We’re straight-line guys,” said Nystrom, who has registered a +1 plus/minus rating so far, of his new linemates. “I know that they’re not doing anything crazy or fancy with the puck, so it’s easy. I just know if I go in a straight line, they’re going to advance the puck and they know if they go in a straight line, I’m going to advance the puck, and then when we get in there, Fidds and Devo are both really strong on the puck and I think that’s my type of game also, getting down low. They’re good defensively. It’s really easy playing with those guys.”

“Burrie was on our line, and he’s a right shot trying to play the left wing, it’s not the easiest thing to do,” Fiddler explained. “He’s the same kind of player as us, but he was not playing his position, so bringing in a left-handed shot, it gives us a little more flow coming out of the zone. Nystrom’s a lot like me and Dvorak, he plays hard, he likes to keep it simple, he’s reliable and not a liability out there. It’s been nice to play with him, he’s good in the zone and he makes some nice plays along the wall, so it’s been good.”

While the trade has helped Dallas, it has been an absolute godsend for Nystrom. In Minnesota, where he signed a three-year contract as a free agent before last season, he appeared to fall out of favor and was even assigned to AHL Houston at the start of this year, but even they balked at playing him ahead of the organization’s younger prospects.

So for Nystrom, coming to Dallas has been a new lease on life, although as smoothly as things have gone so far, Nystrom doesn’t want to get complacent. He recognizes that he has to continue to battle every day for his ice time and keep giving a consistent, hard-working performance every game.

“Obviously, coming from the situation I was in, I was so happy to get an opportunity and a new breath of fresh air on another team, so I was real excited,” said Nystrom, who registered four goals and 12 points in 82 games last year with a Wild team that finished 12th in the Western Conference standings. “In Minnesota they had a different plan, they were going with younger guys and it looked like they were trying to just shed some salary and I come to a team that needed it, and from that, I’ve never doubted the way I can play. I just knew that I’d have to grind it out and just work hard and eventually, hopefully, things will pay off. So far, they have, but it’s still early and I’m trying to improve every game and make sure that I’m doing everything I can to help the team. Whatever they tell me to do, I’m going to do.” 
That team-first attitude is reminiscent of his dad Bob, who played 14 years for the New York Islanders from 1972-86, winning four Stanley Cups. Bob is probably best-known for scoring the game-winning goal in overtime of Game 6 of the 1980 Finals against Philadelphia, giving the Islanders their first championship.

For Eric, who was just three months old when the Isles won their fourth Cup in 1983, growing up with a father with such experience and wisdom to dispense was never a burden but an extremely valuable resource.

“I never played hockey because I was Bob Nystrom’s son, I always played because I’m a huge fan of the game,” said Eric, who grew up on Long Island until he joined the U.S. National Team Development Program in 1999-2000 at age 16. “I watch every game on TV, I’m a huge student, I’m a fan of all the guys and I just love the game. I’m so lucky having a guy like that as my dad, because I’d come home from a bad game or a tough night, and he’d have pointers that I could see myself applying in the next game that actually help and not everybody has that. It’s not over-bearing or anything, he just gives me the littlest pointers and it’s amazing how you can apply them. I’m a lucky guy. He’s a helluva role model and a great guy.”

Nystrom went on to the University of Michigan and after his freshman year, when he scored 18 goals and 31 points in 40 games, he was selected by the Calgary Flames in the first round, 10th overall, in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft. He remained in school another three years before turning pro and while he did have to deal with the elevated expectations that come with being such a high pick, he never let it change his approach.

“You know what, that’s something that you don’t really control,” said Nystrom, whose best offensive season at Michigan was his senior year in 2004-05 when he compiled 32 points (13 goals, 19 assists) in 38 games. “Getting drafted in the first round is not something you choose to do. Obviously, there’s pressure involved with being a first-round pick, but I didn’t change my game. I was never a huge goal-scorer, I was just a hard-working guy and if that got me into the league, that was great and that’s what I continued to do. There was never any pressure (to leave school early), I loved every single second I had there. I got a degree and had some of the best experiences of my life playing there. I am where I am now because I had the extra time to develop.”

Nystrom’s progression was steady, as he apprenticed for two and a half years in the AHL before finally establishing himself as a full-time NHLer with the Flames in 2008-09. But following a solid 2009-10 season, in which he recorded personal-best totals of 11 goals and 19 points in 82 games, Nystrom became a free agent and was lured to Minnesota with a three-year, $4.2 million deal.

But as the Beatles informed us, money doesn’t buy love (or happiness), so now that he’s been freed from that difficult scenario, Nystrom is thrilled to be in Dallas and that kind of enthusiastic attitude is infectious in the locker room.

“I’m so happy to be here,” said Nystrom. “I feel like I have a second chance and I learned a lot from this experience and I’m just trying to get better every single day. I just want to keep playing well and doing the right things and helping the team.”

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