Asked about Eric Nystrom, his linemate over the past few games, Jaromir Jagr glanced to his right at Nystrom, who was sitting a few away in the Dallas Stars locker room, and smiled.
“Look at him,” Jagr said with a laugh.
After a brief pause, he continued.
“He’s a good player, man,” Jagr said. “Very underrated. Very good player,”
And a player he didn’t know much about when he joined the Dallas Stars, but a player he’s grown to appreciate, especially now that they’ve been linemates recently.
“He didn’t get a chance to play offensively,” Jagr said. “He was on the fourth line and playing PK. So, he kind of surprised me. It’s all about opportunities. There is no question about it.”
And the opportunity to play on a line with Jagr and Jamie Benn is something that Nystrom is relishing.
“That’s the type of opportunity that you dream of,” said Nystrom. “I just want to take full advantage of it. I’ve been working so hard for when I get that chance and now that it’s here, I’ve got to hit the ground running.”
Stars coach Glen Gulutzan moved Nystrom to left wing on line with Jagr at right wing and Benn at center in the third period of the Stars game at Los Angeles last Thursday and the trio has stuck together the last two games.
“I like that he gets pucks and he holds pucks low, he’s real responsible defensively and it takes a little bit of a load off Jamie,” Gulutzan said of Nystrom. “Jags is always deep in the zone, holding pucks and cycling and those two guys can help him in that regard. So, he can take a little of the defensive responsibility. He also can take some faceoffs for Jamie and his hand right now. He kind of gives us a lot of dimensions there.”
In his first full game on the line, Nystrom picked up one goal and one assist in the Stars’ 5-2 win over Colorado at American Airlines Center on Saturday.
“He’s got it all,” said Jagr. “He’s got the skill, he can score. He’s quick. He can play one-on-one and battle. He can play defense. He’s got it all, man.”
But even though Nystrom is playing on a top line, there is nothing fancy about his game. He’s taking the same approach as he does when he’s playing on a lower line.
“I’m just trying not to change my game,” Nystrom said. “I’m just playing an energy type of game, physical, strong on the walls, strong in the corners and strong in front of the net. I know those guys want to handle the puck, so I am just trying to get it to them and trying to find a place where I can get it in a scoring position. Go to the net, open room up, bang some bodies.”
But that doesn’t mean he can’t make a play when the opportunity presents itself. Nystrom’s playing in the best league in the world because he’s a skilled hockey player. He’s found his role in the league playing on lower lines and killing penalties, but he still has the ability to do more.
“Just because I am playing in a fourth line role, I am playing that role. I am doing that role the best I can. I am getting pucks deep,” Nystrom said. “That doesn’t mean if you get a chance to play with other guys, you can’t have that versatility to make a play. That’s the thing about this league, sometimes you get pigeonholed in a position, but then you play with some guys and you might be able to have a flash here and there.”
As Jagr likes to say, “It’s about opportunities. If you work hard and you do the right things, the opportunity will come. And you have to be ready for the opportunity.”
And Nystrom has earned this one.
“It’s a great opportunity and he’s earned it with his work ethic day in and day out,” said Gulutzan. “He is a good fit there, so it is good for us.”
For Nystrom, he’s happy in whatever role he’s playing. He just wants to do what he can to help the team win games in a tight playoff race.
“I want this team to make it,” said Nystrom. “We’re right there. We just need to get over the next hurdle. If I get a chance to help that, I am going to do whatever I have to do it.”