Nastiuk settles into groove with ‘Blades

By Holly Gunning

Kevin Nastiuk’s season has taken him gradually downward in leagues from the NHL to AHL to ECHL, but playing in all three is not usual for a goalie in an organization that has only four netminders under contract. Nor is the order an indication of his potential.

He steadily improved every year in the WHL with the Medicine Hat Tigers, leading them to the Memorial Cup in 2004. The 6’1 and 170 lbs wiry goalie signed a pro contract with the Carolina Hurricanes last summer, having been drafted by the club in the fourth round in 2003.

Nastiuk was up with Carolina for a total of five games this year as a backup – for the opening ceremonies and the first six days of the season due to a hip injury to starter Martin Gerber, and then right before Christmas, when Cam Ward was sent down.

“I think being 20 years old and being called up is pretty unbelievable. I was pretty honored to be up there,” he said.

With the AHL Lowell Lock Monsters, Nastiuk struggled somewhat with a 1-7-3 record and a .887 save percentage. He called the Lowell experience growing pains, but it wasn’t tougher than he expected.

“No, I kind of knew going in what I was getting myself into. The American League is a great league, and I think being 20 years old, you have to take everything you can out of your first year and just try to learn from it. I think I played some good games in the AHL and a couple tough ones, but that’s going to happen. Just growing pains and hopefully in the next little while I can keep on progressing.”

Having lost his last six starts, he was assigned to the ECHL Florida Everblades on Jan. 3. Twenty-five-year-old Craig Kowalski swapped places with him.

Nastiuk is playing very well for Florida with a 2.68 GAA and a .925 save percentage, but he’d tell you not just to look at his numbers.

“Sometimes numbers don’t tell it all, if you’re facing good quality shots then your numbers aren’t going to be that great. But I think as long as you’re winning hockey games, just giving your team a chance to win every night, that’s all you can do.”

From a technical standpoint, his play right now is very good. He’s in the proper position and is handling the puck well. His confidence seems to have improved behind a good Florida team.

“Well, it’s tough. Sometimes things aren’t going well and you have to try and stay positive. Obviously you want to try and get a good string of games going and build your confidence and there were a few games in the AHL there where I played really well. In Lowell, we’re having a rough year there. Having a tough time scoring goals and tough defensively.”

Hindsight being 20/20, Nastiuk probably should have started at the ECHL level in the first place, where most rookies out of junior begin their careers. But he gladly took the full rookie treatment during his time in Carolina.

“Guys are always joking around with you obviously because you’re a young guy. You go in net and guys are always hooting and hollering when they score. I don’t think too much about that. I’m a pretty quiet guy. It’s a great atmosphere up there and it’s a totally different lifestyle. It’s something where once you’re up there you really want to get back. It would be a dream come true.”

Though they grew up near each other, and had what Nastiuk called some “tough battles” against each other in the WHL playoffs, he and 21-year-old Ward never met until his first rookie camp for Carolina. They roomed together at the Ottawa tournament. They’ll get to know each other very well as the future in net for Carolina.

Sharing an AHL affiliate this season with the Avalanche, Nastiuk has gotten to know Colorado’s Vitaly Kolesnik pretty well too, who is currently playing in the Olympics for Kazakhstan.

“He’s awesome. A guy I look up to and if it weren’t for him, we’d have a worse record than we do,” Nastiuk raved. “He’s an awesome goalie.”

Indeed, the 26-year-old Kolesnik is responsible for 14 of the team’s 22 wins. Lowell has started to turn it around lately, with a 22-27-4 record, good for fifth in their division.

Another goalie he looks up to, Gerber, established himself as a starter in the NHL at age 31, showing it’s not too late for anyone. Nastiuk had nice things to say about Gerber even on the day that the Swiss goaltender shut out Team Canada in the Olympics.

“Gerber is awesome, obviously, with Carolina this year. He’s an unbelievable goalie and not being a starter up until this year, I think he’s really proven what he can do. He was great in Anaheim and now he’s great in Carolina. It’s a little tough to take, he beat Canada. I couldn’t watch it, I was having my pre-game sleep, but I heard how well he played. Obviously it’s great for him, but as a Canadian, it’s tough to take (laughing).”

While the NHL is off for the break, Nastiuk is busier than ever. He has taken over the staring duties with the Everblades from Florida Panthers goaltender Phil Osaer. The Hurricanes wanted him to get as much experience as possible this season.

“They pretty much said when they sent me down that they want me to get some games in,” Nastiuk said. “They’re really struggling up there [in Lowell]. Down here I’ll probably get a few more [games] and we’re in second place right now so we’re trying to keep going forward and drive towards the playoffs.”

Florida is in the middle of a four-game battle against top-ranked Gwinnett. It’s a series where there’s been more than a little gamesmanship.

“Playoff atmosphere here tonight and a great turnout of fans,” he said on Saturday night after picking up the 3-2 shootout victory over the Atlanta Thrashers Adam Berkhoel. “These are the games you love to play, you don’t want to play against last place teams, you want to have tough battles against these teams to see what kind of character and what kind of team you’ve got.”

Nastiuk is wearing a relatively new Hurricanes-themed mask that he got just before Christmas. He has two flags on the back, Alberta for his native Edmonton, and Ukraine, where his dad’s side of the family is from. With a lot of Ukrainian heritage in Alberta, he says it’s “just something to remind me of home.”

With as many stops as he’s had, that’s probably a good idea. Of his well-traveled season, he said, “It’s been a learning experience, that’s for sure.”

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.