WHEELING - What do you get when you mix a little bit of grit, a pinch of finesse, a dash of youth and a smidge of experience? If Wheeling Nailers coach Clark Donatelli has it figured out the way he hopes, the answer is a Kelly Cup championship banner hanging from the rafters at WesBanco Arena.
The grind, all 72 games of it, begins anew at 7 tonight when the Nailers open the 2013-14 ECHL season by playing host to Atlantic Division rival Elmira.
''We've got a good squad and the guys have had a good week of practice,'' Donatelli said Thursday morning. ''We're ready to go.''
Zack Torquato, rear, and the Wheeling Nailers hope to be celebrating into the summer as they begin their annual chase of the famed Kelly Cup tonight at WesBanco Arena.
On paper, Wheeling appears to have one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference. The Nailers have size, speed and toughness aplenty, combined with what figures to be a formidable defensive core. Players caution, however, that games are won with skill, not opinion.
''Everybody thinks they're good this time of year, but I guess we don't have to wait too long to figure out who's good and who's not,'' forward Denver Manderson (5-foot-10, 180 pounds) said. ''I think everyone is interested to see what it looks like when it all comes together (tonight).''
''I think we're a well-rounded team,'' said defenseman Barry Goers (5-9, 180 pounds), who comes to the Nailers after playing 19 games last year in the American Hockey League with Lake Erie. ''You'll see us trying to play with a lot of tenacity, finishing checks and when those opportunities present themselves, using our skill to hopefully score some goals.''
Wheeling finished above .500 (31-29-12) for the third consecutive season in 2013, but just missed out on the playoffs for the first time during that span. A large part of that was due to problems in the third period of games, that ultimately ended up giving valuable points away.
''It's not having that feeling of 'here it comes again,' '' said Donatelli, who enters his third season with the team. ''The fans must have thought it, the guys on the bench have thought it (and) the coaches have felt it. It's a feeling.
''That was one of the biggest things we had to do, is eliminate that feeling of 'oh, boy, here it comes again.' ''
To that end, the coaching staff, which also includes first-year assistant Doug Bradley, made it a priority to bring in hard-working, detail-oriented, mentally tough individuals. That, Donatelli hopes, will help solve the Nailers' problems on the road, where they won just 10 times last season.
''That was one of the big things that we had to adjust,'' Donatelli said. ''I think the maturity and the leadership we brought in should counter that.''
Donatelli said the club will open the season without a captain, instead going with three alternates - Manderson, Goers and Chaz Johnson. He said it will work itself out and a captain will be named at a later date.
Following is a breakdown of the opening-night roster.
Mike Condon (6-3, 195), a 23-year-old who was sent down from Hamilton out of the Montreal organization, is going to carry the load, at least early on, and will be between the pipes tonight. He'll be backed up by 37-year-old Alex Westlund (5-9, 185).
''He's a pretty solid goaltender and he's playing really well for us,'' Donatelli said of Condon. ''We're excited and looking forward to having him in there.''
Condon played four games in the ECHL with Ontario and five in the AHL with Houston after finishing a four-year career at Princeton. Westlund spent the last eight seasons in Europe.
Wheeling picked up some needed help earlier this week, acquiring Ryan Blair (6-4, 210) and Jake Areshenko (6-0, 200) from Orlando in exchange for future considerations. The moves were made in attempt to sure up the bottom portion of the unit.
The horse of this group is Mike Ratchuk (5-11, 187), a former second-round pick of Philadelphia in 2006, who scored 20 points (3g-17a) in 31 games last season for Florida, where he won a championship in 2011. His likely partner is Matt Grassi (6-3, 215), a shutdown defender who played three games with Hamilton last season after finishing up at Michigan State.
Goers, who scored 26 points (5g-21a) two years ago in Las Vegas, will be paired with Paul Cianfrini (6-1, 210) who spent part of last season with the Nailers.
Ryley Miller (6-0, 180) comes with a reputation as being a nasty guy to play against, as he amassed 164 penalty minutes in 57 games, split between two leagues last season.
''Ratchuk and Goers, they are two defensemen we picked up that can really carry the mail for us in all situations,'' Donatelli said.
Gentry Zollars (5-11, 195) is injured.
This group is easily the the deepest on the squad, and it forced Donatelli to make some cuts that he would rather not have.
The top line will be rookie Cody Sylvester (5-11, 191), who captained the Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League last season, putting up 90 points (41g-49a) in 68 games, on the left wing. Johnson (6-1, 215) is on the right, and Manderson in the middle. Johnson, a former nemesis with Elmira, had 23 points (12g-11a) and 69 penalty minutes in 43 games.
Jack MacLellan (5-11, 185) figures to get plenty of time after splitting 45 games between Milwaukee and Cincinnati in 2012. Ryan Flanigan (6-0, 180) had 33 points (9g-24a) in 59 games, split between two teams, while Carter Rowney (6-2, 208) spent four games with Abbotsford at the end of last season following a four-year career at North Dakota.
Stephen MacAulay (6-2, 195) scored 62 points (31g-31a) in 59 games in the QMJHL. Sahir Gill (5-11, 185), a Boston University product, is a center, and Patrick McGrath (5-10, 200), who will fight anyone, anywhere, brings plenty of brawn.
Scott Zurevinski (6-3, 215) scored 12 goals for the Nailers as a rookie, Justin Smith (6-2, 205) also packs a punch, and Colin Mulvey (5-10, 175) impressed with his speed in the preseason. Christiaan Minella (6-2, 215) is back for his third season with the club, Zack Torquato (6-0, 195) is hoping to bounce back from an injury-plagued season, and Jordy Trottier (5-11, 180) is also injured.
Max MacKay, who had six points in eight games last season, had an impressive camp.
''We kept some grit in the lineup,'' Donatelli said. ''When we say tough, it's not all fighting.
''It's going to the hard areas, taking a hit to make a play. It's doing the little things for a teammate. By playing nasty and physical like that, altercations will come.''