By SHAWN RINE
WHEELING - At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, it stands to reason that Wheeling Nailers defenseman Peter Merth would be a hard guy to overlook. For a multitude of reasons though, it keeps happening.
Merth played well enough to hang around at the American Hockey League level with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for 11 games last season, then went on to make a strong case for himself this preseason in Abbotsford. Yet last Friday night, there he was in Cincinnati with the Nailers, beginning his third season in the ECHL.
''You try not to focus on that,'' Merth said after practice Tuesday at WesBanco Arena. ''There's a lot of players out there and you're just trying to be the best you can at where you're at.
''Eventually this lockout is going to end and you just want to be in the position to still move on to the next level.''
That attitude, it's reasonable to assume, will do a lot for a man. It did for Merth, who late last week was named the team's captain for this season. He will be assisted by Paul Crowder, last season's captain, as well as Ben Farrer.
Nailers coach Clark Donatelli said Merth is everything he looks for in a leader.
''He's good on and off the ice and everyone likes him,'' Donatelli said. ''He's a true leader who really understands the game and about work ethic.
''The guys really respect him and I think he's going to be a great captain.
''Benny Farrer, he's come a long way since his college career. He sat out the first 12 games of last year and knows the meaning of hanging in there, persevering and how to find a way to get into a lineup. For the young guys that we have that are going to be going in and out of the lineup, I think Ben can carry that and he can talk to the guys off the ice in that situation.
''Pauly is a leader on and off the ice. He doesn't really say much and is quiet off the ice. But when he does speak people listen, because he is a man of few words.''
One thing Merth, like other guys who are teetering on the edge of making the jump has going for him, is the ECHL is stocked with AHL-level talent this season. That's a fact that wasn't lost on Merth, an RPI graduate in his third pro season.
''There's a lot more players and a lot of talent on every team in the league,'' said Merth, who had 12 points (3g-9a) and was a plus-20 for the Nailers last season. ''The caliber of player is definitely pretty high. You're playing against guys who are going to be at the next level in just a matter of time.''
Donatelli said the situation may end up being a blessing for Merth.
''He's shut out in the short term, but in the long term they're going to see him playing and shutting down those American League players,'' the first-year coach said. ''When people are watching him, it's only going to show that they are 100-percent right and it's no one-game fluke deal.
''Him going up and doing well last year in Wilkes-Barre, I just think it's going to carry over going forward here playing against other AHL guys that are in this league. They're going to have no doubt whatsoever when they see him play.''
Merth doesn't see being named captain as something that will add stress to the already hectic life of a pro hockey player. He said being an alternate last season gives him an idea of what to expect.
''It was a great honor to be named captain of this team,'' Merth said. ''I was in a position of leadership last year and there's a lot of good leaders on this team, so having the 'C' doesn't mean I am the only one by any means.''
If Merth has his way though, he won't be wearing a Wheeling sweater for long.
''I'm familiar with the area, but you don't want to get complacent by any means,'' he said. ''I guess it helps with the adjustment period, but at the same time everyone is looking to move on.''