Walleye forward Zach Nastasiuk would prefer to be playing at a higher level, but the young prospect believes there has been no better place to find his game than in Toledo.
Nastasiuk, who is just 22 but in his third season with the Walleye, said he has grown fond of the ECHL franchise.
“It's a great time playing in Toledo,” Nastasiuk said. “It's a special thing. The whole organization has a standard here. The coaches and the staff really care about us. The coaches don't take it easy on us. They're always looking to help us improve as hockey players. They teach us to be good people on and off the ice.”
After being selected in the second round of the 2013 NHL draft by the Detroit Red Wings, big things were expected from the native of Barrie, Ont. Nastasiuk has found significant ice time to develop his game in Toledo and Walleye coach Dan Watson said he has stepped up.
On Friday, Nastasiuk appeared in his 100th career game for the Walleye. He has now played in 101 games for Toledo and has 31 goals and 40 assists.
Watson said he has been impressed with Nastasiuk's drive to improve.
“He has a strong work ethic and wants to get better each day,” Watson said. “When he is physical and uses his body and his stick the right way, he is extremely effective. He's a great penalty killer and can be moved anywhere in the lineup.”
Toledo Walleye player Zach Nastasiuk is pressured by a Fort Wayne player. Nastasiuk recently played his 100th game in Toledo.
BLADE/ANDY MORRISON Enlarge
Nastasiuk — a 6-foot-2, 202-pound power forward — started his rookie season of 2015-16 in Toledo. He spent his first year in the pros splitting time between Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League and Toledo. He finished with 10 goals and 20 points in 25 games that season for the Walleye.
Last season, Nastasiuk had 13 goals and 21 assists in 47 games. He then had seven points in 13 playoff games.
For the third straight season, Nastasiuk has helped lead Toledo to a berth in the Kelly Cup playoffs. This year, Nastasiuk has eight goals and nine assists in 29 games for the Walleye.
“Making the playoffs is a special feeling,” Nastasiuk said. “It's great with the fan support. It's nice to reward them for cheering us on.”
The Walleye (42-15-5) lead all of the ECHL with 89 points. The team is in solid contention for winning a fourth straight Central Division title with a four-point lead over rival Fort Wayne. With 10 games left in the regular season, the Walleye also are in position to capture the Brabham Cup (best regular-season record) for the third time in the last four seasons.
“It's gonna be a lot of fun,” Nastasiuk said of the playoff push. “Both teams want to be first in the division. It's a race to the finish. That will make it fun. We've clinched a playoff spot, but we can't take our foot off the gas. We want the division.”
With an 8-0 shellacking of Quad City on Friday night, the Walleye set an ECHL record for the most wins during a four-year span (189). The Alaska Aces twice achieved 188 wins during a four-year span to hold the record until the Walleye broke it from 2014 until the present.
Nastasiuk said the key to the consistency has been the leadership core of veterans A.J. Jenks, Alden Hirschfeld, Kyle Bonis, Shane Berschbach, Tyler Barnes, and Beau Schmitz.
“It's easy to follow the leaders on this team with the work ethic and passion they have for the Walleye,” Nastasiuk said. “They set the standard.”
Toledo, which is 26-5-1 at the Huntington Center, has the most home wins in the league. Nastasiuk said the other major factor is the crowd support. There have been a franchise-record 24 sellouts this season at the downtown arena with an average crowd of 7,538.
“The fans are a big part of our success here,” Nastasiuk said. “It's a great time to playing in Toledo. The fans bring us energy too. We feed off them. It's unbelievable. We don't take it for granted looking forward.”
Toledo, which also has played well on the road (16-10-4), plays its next four games away from home, including games at Quad City on Wednesday and Friday nights. Six of the team's last 10 games in the regular season are on the road.
“This team has good balance,” Nastasiuk said. “We have a bunch of players that can do a bit of everything. We're good up front. Our D rush the pucks and keep it simple. Our goaltending has been top notch with [veteran Pat Nagle]. He's a calming presence back there.”
Nastasiuk himself has learned to stay calm through a series of promotions and reassignments in his career. Nastasiuk has been called up to Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League three times this season and has shuffled back and forth from the Griffins to Toledo 18 times since 2015-16.
The Walleye's Zach Nastasiuk takes control of the puck. Nastasiuk was a second-round draft pick of the Red Wings.
BLADE/AMY E. VOIGT Enlarge
He also has played in eight games for the Griffins this year and has one goal and one assist.
“I'm approaching it differently,” Nastasiuk said. “I just want to become a better hockey player on and off the ice. I want to be up in Grand Rapids. Everyone wants to be up at the next level. But I always like coming down here. I get a chance to play more minutes. I get more opportunities to grow as a player. You can challenge yourself in different situations.”
Overall, Nastasiuk played 53 games in the AHL, recording four goals, seven assists, and four penalty minutes.
“I feel pretty good,” Nastasiuk said. “It was a tough first couple of years. Last summer I decided to have a different mindset. I wanted to control my work ethic and attitude and do what's best for my team. There are a lot of good guys here and a lot of good guys in Grand Rapids. It's a good situation. I believe the best is yet to come.”
Nastasiuk said he wants coaches to trust him when he is on the ice.
“I play a simple, hard-working game,” he said. “I want to be reliable and smart. I try to understand the game. I want to get in on the forecheck and dish the puck to my linemates. I want to contribute on both offense and defense.”
Nastasiuk said his first three years in pro hockey have flown by and that he has not taken any of it for granted. He said for now he wants to focus on the task at hand — winning a Cup in Toledo.
“Everyone's goal in this room is to bring the Kelly Cup to this city. It's always in the back of your mind,” Nastasiuk said. “The fans here really deserve it.”
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