WHEELING - The Kelly Cup Playoffs are in full force, and for the first time in three seasons the Wheeling Nailers are not a part of the festivities. There's several areas that point to why that's the case, but none is bigger than the club's highly inconsistent nature.
Long winning streaks were followed by stretches in which the Nailers couldn't seem to buy a break, though truth be told, a lot of that had to do with effort.
It wasn't a typical season by any stretch, as the NHL lockout stretched into mid-January. Nailers personnel suffered a highly unusual number of concussions including to such stalwarts as Zack Torquato, Reid McNeill, Cam Fergus and Cody Chupp, and call-ups once again wreaked havoc as 23 players spent time in the American Hockey League. The season ended with a whimper, and when it did, Alternate Governor Tim Roberts was served his walking papers.
Team turmoil in the offseason? Stop me if you've heard that before.
The Nailers managed to finish above .500 (31-29-12) for the fifth consecutive season, but blown leads and third-period collapses ultimately became the norm. Wheeling gave up what amounts to 12 extra points points after regulation, which would have put it comfortably in the postseason. The club did, however, win 10 games after regulation, which tied a franchise record.
A big part of the equation was the Nailers' play outside of WesBanco Arena. Though it finished 21-8-7 on home ice, the club didn't win its second road game until Dec. 28 in Greenville and finished with a 10-21-5 mark that was boosted by a late push.
Defensively, Wheeling was a mess at times. Missed assignments, a lack of aggression and attention to detail were a big part of those collapses.
There was definitely positives this season, none bigger than the emergence of goaltender Scott Darling. Thought to be signed last summer merely as insurance for the lockout, he finished the season with a 13-12-4 record to go along with a 2.80 goals-against average and a save percentage of .907. Darling teamed with Peter Delmas (15-12-4, 2.72, .908) to register five shutouts and give the Nailers one of the best 1-2 punches in the ECHL.
Some difficult decisions lie ahead for coach Clark Donatelli, should he return for his second season. No word on his contract has been given by the club.
As far as ECHL players are concerned, I'm of the belief that two years in one city should be the limit. If you push that envelope, this kind of a season is what happens because you have to wonder where a guy's heart is.
It will be interesting to see which, if any, of those type of guys - Torquato, Chris Barton, Paul Crowder, Peter Lenes, Cody Chupp, Zach Hansen and Adam Ross, will return.
Torquato is the kind of guy every team needs off the ice, but in part due to injury he struggled to a minus-15 this season. Barton battled one injury after another, yet scored 43 points (23g, 20a) in 47 games but at times showed himself as a defensive liability. Crowder led the club in scoring with 62 points (23g-39a) in a team-high 68 games and was as good as there is at this level when he wanted to be. Unfortunately that wasn't always the case.
Lenes struggles and is often times invisible when he isn't scoring, which he didn't do a lot of this season. Though he is always hustling, Lenes only netted 13 goals and 26 points and was a minus-14 in 57 games. Chupp's history with concussions are threatening his career, and Ross' rugged style makes it difficult for him to stay healthy, as well.
With attendance this season falling to 2,488 a night, ownership must find the answers quickly. Nobody wants to know what will happen with another non-playoff season.
Shawn Rine can be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org