The calendar flips to October. Training camp rapidly nears its completion, and the mindset shifts to Opening Night on Oct. 5 for the Hershey Bears. Head coach Spencer Carbery looks into his dressing room and sees an abundance of defensemen.
A 2018 Stanley Cup champion in Christian Djoos, joined in forces with 2018 Capitals first-round selection Alex Alexeyev, Lucas Johansen, Connor Hobbs, Colby Williams and Erik Burgdoerfer. These six represented the Bears’ blue line in Hershey’s 82nd opening night.
Days later, another reinforcement arrived with Martin Fehervary assigned from Washington after the rookie backend debuted in the NHL.
Meanwhile, waiting in the wings for an opportunity is a 23-year-old, undrafted college free agent in Bobby Nardella.
Signed on Apr. 5, 2019, by Washington after completing a four-year college hockey career at Notre Dame, Nardella watched from the press box on opening night, as he did for nine of Hershey’s first 10 games of 2019-20.
“Carbs (Carbery) is a great communicator, very detailed and really approachable,” said Nardella.
Despite being scratched early in the season, Nardella continued to receive communication from his coach, and was assured an opportunity was coming.
“With Bobby, when he came in at the beginning of the year, we had a lot of defensemen,” Carbery said. “That meant he was not in the lineup at the beginning of the year, and that was tough. He sat and had to watch quite a few of games, because there were guys getting opportunity in front of him, right or wrong. I’ll never forget, he never complained, never pouted, never showed any type of negative body language.”
But Nardella went a step further. Footsteps from the Bears’ dressing room is Carbery’s office beneath the Giant Center seats. A knock on the head coach’s door, Nardella stood in the doorway and proceeded to take a seat.
Carbery recalled Nardella saying, “‘Carbs, I know you have been talking me through this entire process, and letting me know to stay patient, my opportunity is going to come. What do I need to do to stay in the lineup every night? Just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.’
“That was a player being proactive about his future, his development and his career, and going about it in the right way. He took that information, immediately ran with it, and the rest is history.”
Fast-forward to March, and Nardella had cemented himself as an unmovable, valuable asset to the blue line. Once a dark-horse candidate for Hershey’s rookie of the year, the Rosemont, Illinois, native is now a front-runner, having posted 31 points (four goals, 27 assists) in 41 games. His 27 assists are the most by a Hershey rookie defender since John Carlson totaled 35 helpers in 2009-10. Nardella also leads all current Bears defensemen in multi-point games with seven in 2019-20, including a career-best three-point night on March 7 at Hartford. The key to an offensive upside has been strong instincts.
“His ability with the puck power-play-wise, offensive blue line, up in the rush – that stuff is special,” said Carbery. “He has that skill, he has those instincts. So that stuff we continue to work on with him.”
Yet in the same breath, Carbery noted the offensive upside isn’t necessarily the main focus.
“The main focus with him to get him to play in the NHL as an everyday defenseman: ‘Can I defend down low in the defensive zone, hold my own, and be able to close down on bigger stronger forwards, and can I defend the rush versus speed against a big power forward that’s trying to drive wide?’ If you can defend the rush well, and if you can defend down low in the defensive zone and focus on that area of your game where you’re not getting beat in those areas, then you can let all the offensive stuff take care of itself.”
At 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, it’s no secret Nardella lacks size and reach. Yet he has successfully overcompensated with a high level of intelligence on the ice.
“You have to be smart, and that’s what he is,” Carbery said. “What he lacks in size and reach, he makes up for it in ‘hockey IQ.’ Where that becomes the most important, and where that enables you to play in the NHL with that size, example Tory Krug. That type of defenseman has incredible offensive gifts, just like Bobby.
“[Now] you have to be able to defend and win one-on-one situations against a guy that’s 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, not with strength, not with reach, but with smarts. Anticipating where pucks are going, being able to spin and move your feet to get in, underneath a stick to grab a puck. That’s where you can make up for the lack of reach or lack of size.”
“There’s always a knock for the small guys,” said Nardella. “People wonder if they can compete with the big boys on the ice. It’s having the mentality that you can play a bigger game than what your frame is.”
Positivity is key, and it looms even larger when surrounded by positive influencers ranging from his father, three-time league champion and current Chicago Wolves assistant coach Bob Nardella, to Washington Capitals scout Danny Brooks. Brooks was in constant contact with the younger Nardella throughout his senior year at Notre Dame, and played a key role is bring the two-way blueliner to the organization.
“Danny is just always, always in a positive mood and has your back no matter what,” said Nardella. “When you have a guy like that working for you to help give you the best opportunity as a player, it means a lot. I’m not the only one he’s like that with, and a great guy to have in the organization.”
Quick to credit other individuals for his personal success, Nardella’s list continues to grow. From mentioning Brooks, Carbery, Hershey assistant coaches Patrick Wellar and Scott Allen, to former teammates in Christian Djoos and Aaron Ness, and also to his family – Nardella is first to know plenty of credit is to be shared.