Following a crushing defeat against the Manitoba Moose, the Grand Rapids Griffins faced the off-season roster challenges sooner than expected. As opposed to last season where the Griffins skated well into June to claim the Calder Cup, they now faced the inevitable exit meetings, agent conferences and re-situating challenges. A clearly distraught and upset Zach Nastasiuk was among those making tearful phone calls following game five’s end. Having served five seasons with the Griffins, Nasty (as he is called) found himself having to make a “very hard decision” a lot sooner than he would have wished to. Nastasiuk is a restricted free agent this off-season along with Matt Puempel and Dan Renouf.
Nastasiuk’s role with Grand Rapids has been an ongoing two-way deal with Toledo. A designated “floater,” he’s called upon as needed to Grand Rapids and sent back to the ECHL when the Griffins are no longer in need. A two-way deal isn’t uncommon in the AHL and ECHL and though exhausting, it gives the players a decent amount of playing time in both leagues. Being signed with Grand Rapids at the end of the 2013-2014 season from the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack, Zach was a prime candidate for the demands of a two-way deal. Young, talented and full of energy and potential, he was a perfect fit for the ever-changing AHL team. On the heels of a newly crowned Calder Cup Championship, the Griffins were feeling a great loss as many of their star players moved on to the NHL thereafter, leaving some gaping holes in the lineup. Nastasiuk was a brawny kid, and fit the right wing and center position well.
Nastasiuk had an impressive OHL tenure. Hitting a junior career high of 77 points in the 2014-2015 season (still floating between juniors and the pros), and making the playoffs every year, Zach was a proven hard worker. His on-ice stamina and subtle grit was put to the test in 2015-2016 where he spent his longest stretch with the AHL. Playing 27 games that season and earning 8 points, Zach had to fight to earn ice time against other promising players like Anthony Mantha and Marty Frk. Unfortunately for Nastasiuk, head coach Todd Nelson, made the decision to send the inexperienced player down to Toledo to play with the Walleye. Though his AHL stretch wasn’t as many games as he would have hoped, being in Toledo gave Zach the opportunity get his legs under him. Getting comfortable with the Walleye, Nastasiuk finished his season with 20 ECHL regular season points in 25 games played.
Formatted much like the AHL in terms of demands and play, the ECHL provided Zach the necessary tools to build physically and mentally. Having a loaded roster in Grand Rapids meant that Zach would be spending a great deal of his seasons training with the Walleye. Understanding that a player in his position, with two-way movement, you’d be placed where you’re needed and that was in Toledo. Nastasiuk seemingly embraced his role and spent 47 games in 2016-2017 in Ohio and notched 34 points.
Nastasiuk has shown by the numbers, his ability to work with what he has and embrace his role. He’s a strong skater, perhaps not as fast as others, but he’s determined. He’s been described as “underrated” and at times, “under-appreciated.”. Though he’s not a superstar and doesn’t get fancy with the puck, he has a physical drive to the puck that is worth mentioning. Even when in the midst of defeat, like game five of this season’s Calder Cup playoffs, Zach worked with every ounce of energy he had left. He clearly held nothing back. In Toledo, he is a force to be reckoned with and a crowd favorite which does account for something. He is aggressive against the boards and wreaks havoc while remaining stealthy and calm.
Coming into the off-season, Grand Rapids is loading up their roster once again with promising skaters and defensemen hoping to make another long playoff run come next season. The question is whether Nasty, Puempel and Reno have a home in Grand Rapids still. All will be known as the days creep by, but as it stands now, it looks like the young-guns may be stealing the show. Nastasiuk is a solid center and winger, but not getting enough ice time in Grand Rapids. In Toledo, he steals the show but with their roster also being heavily loaded with top-talent and other Griffins/Red Wings floaters, Nastasiuk would once again have to fight for ice. He’s young, hard-working and has the drive to go far, but whether it’s in Grand Rapids is anyone’s guess.
Hanging out in the locker room hallway following a devastating loss gives you a real-life glimpse at months of hard work not paying off. Nastasiuk was among those suffering from uncertainty and disappointment. As of now, its unknown whether or not the Griffins will extend an offer to him or if another team will make an offer once he becomes unrestricted. The unknowns brought the young man near tears – which is never fun to see – but at the end of the day contracts are business deals. Nastasiuk is a fine player with great potential. Only time will tell whether or not there’s room on the Grand Rapids roster for his potential or if it’s time for Nasty to move on.