ST. LOUIS - Eric Nystrom just looks like a different player. First, there's no dent in his face anymore.
Nystrom was one of three Wild players to skate in all 82 games last season, but he secretly played more than half of them with the left side of his face caved in after a December fight with then-Los Angeles Kings forward Wayne Simmonds.
That broken cheekbone has been repaired.
"I looked like Elephant Man after the surgery for about three weeks," Nystrom said.
But Nystrom's different look goes beyond aesthetics.
The 28-year-old checker made his exhibition debut Thursday night against the Blues, and so far in training camp, he looks like a more confident player than the version Wild fans were introduced to last season.
Nystrom, a former University of Michigan standout, Calgary Flames first-round pick and the son of New York Islanders legend Bobby Nystrom, just never got going.
After signing a three-year, $4.2 million contract July 1, 2010, he struggled in every facet. He scored four goals, including one empty-net goal in the first 57 games. But even more surprising, he struggled defensively (team-worst minus-16).
"Sometimes when you come in as a free agent, you try to do too much," Nystrom said. "You feel like you just need to make such a great impression, I put so much pressure on myself. And when things weren't going well, I was so hard on myself and lost so much confidence.
"And this game is all about confidence. I worked hard this summer on my game and you try to remember what being confident feels like. I came here feeling confident, and that's what I want to carry into the season."
Nystrom knows he can't use the broken cheekbone as an excuse. He prides himself on being a good two-way player and struggled right out of the gate.
But the injury did hurt.
"You want to dig in there, but you're always thinking about it," he said. "You see a guy get wrecked and you can't come over and stand up for him because you may get whacked in the face again. That goes with the confidence. When you lose that, you're in trouble. And that's not going to happen this year."
Nystrom spent the summer in Santa Monica, Calif., where he lives with his girlfriend, actress Heidi Mueller. It was the second offseason the Long Islander spent in the California sunshine. Every morning, Nystrom would hop out of bed and hit Venice Beach for a run on the sand, a swim in the Pacific or a game on the popular paddle tennis courts.
"Everyone's so active and healthy, it's just so easy to get up and exercise," Nystrom said.
But now he's back in Minnesota, refreshed and letting his personality shine on his new Twitter account, @enystrom23. He's excited about a clean slate under new coach Mike Yeo.
Because fast, physical left wing Colton Gillies, 22, is expected to make the team, Nystrom probably will move to center the fourth line with Gillies and Brad Staubitz, his linemate of much of last season.
"I was talking to Stauby. We want to make plays," Nystrom said. "We know we have to be physical, but there's a time and place for us to make a play here and there. Last season, we were just so robotic. You've got to sometimes handle the puck and feel it, and after a while when you just make robot plays, that's when you start to squeeze the stick tight.
"This year, we have to create."
Yeo doesn't want Gillies-Nystrom-Staubitz to forget their identity though, which is to be a "momentum line. You're looking for shifts in the offensive zone, you're looking for a physical aspect of the game."
The line will do that, Nystrom says.
"I really love how those guys just go. They just want to get the puck. I've played with guys that want you to do all the work and get in there. These guys are hungry to do that, too. I like center because I can wind up and get speed, and with that, really get in on the forecheck, get right in on the D and really get some cracks.
"I really think this will be my year. I want to forget about last year."