WHEELING - The swishing sounds of skates circling the ice returns to WesBanco Arena this morning. The Wheeling Nailers open their 22nd training camp in this city at 9:15 and practice will continue through 10:45.
So begins what under the direction of Coach Clark Donatelli and assistant Doug Bradley could arguably be the most anticipated hockey season since the team relocated from Winston-Salem, N.C.
The Nailers are coming off their third consecutive winning season, but also found themselves on the outside looking in as far as the playoffs are concerned for the first time during that same period. When expectations aren't met, change can be expected. The 28-member training camp roster certainly reflects that, as there are only a handful of returnees.
Leading the way are Scott Zurevinksi, Denver Manderson, Zack Torquato and Christiaan Minella.
Zurevinski, 25, returns to the Nailers for his second season, after finishing second on the team in rookie scoring with 12 goals, 13 assists, 25 points, and 46 penalty minutes, while posting a plus-8 rating. Manderson missed all but one game last season because of a shoulder injury, but is a key piece in all situations.
Minella, meanwhile, impressed in his first stint in the AHL last season, showing a willingness to drop the gloves and even pitching in offensively, including a game-winning goal in the Eastern Conference Final while playing with Wilkes-Barre. He had 12 points (4g-8a) in 42 games for the Nailers.
Torquato is back for his third season in Wheeling, having put up 27 points (9g-18a) and 90 penalty minutes in an injury-shortened 2012.
There will be no shortage of grit up front with the likes of Chaz Johnson, the Nailers' first signing of the offseason, and Patrick McGrath, who made quite a name for himself physically in AHL camp. The rest of the forwards are Kyle Fletcher, who had a cup of coffee in Wheeling at the end of last season, Ryan Flanigan, who earned 18 points in 30 games for Greenville in 2012, Russell Goodman, a rookie from Quinnipiac, Max MacKay, who spent eight games here, Justin Smith and Cody Sylvester, a feisty guy who was captain of the Calgary Hitmen last season.
The defense corp could be an interesting mix of offensive firepower and nastiness. Mike Ratchuk, who puts up points at an alarming rate, is joined by Barry Goers, who spent last season playing for Las Vegas, Ryley Miller, who loves to mix it up, Alex Velischek, Gentry Zollars, who is another holdover, and Jarrett Rush, a well-traveled player who spent time with four ECHL teams last season.
The goaltender is Mike Condon, who was assigned to the Nailers by Hamilton and played a combined nine games in the ECHL and AHL at the end of last season, after finishing his college career with Princeton.
Receiving invites are defensemen Alan Dionne and Nick Kuqali, forwards Tyler Fernandez, Sahir Gill, Colin Mulvey, Jordan Singer, Jordy Trottier and Nick Zaino. Goaltender Joey Spagnoli will also get a look.
That's right, you can watch the Nailers play the Elmira Jackals in the exhibition opener at 7 on Saturday night for free, courtesy of Ogden Newspapers.
All you have to do is cut out the coupon that has been running in our sports section, present it at the door and it can get up to 10 people in not only for Saturday's game, but also Wednesday at 7 when the Nailers welcome the Fort Wayne Komets to WesBanco Arena for their second and final preseason home game.
It goes without saying, but we hope to see you there.
Shawn Rine can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org