WHEELING - If forced to name a single player who could have the biggest impact on the fortunes of the 2013-14 Wheeling Nailers season, a pretty good argument can be made for third-year center Denver Manderson.
A goal-scoring machine for the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League, a Tier-II Junior A League in Canada, Manderson has turned himself into a player capable of playing in all situations during his time in the United States. He'll be the quarterback of the power play this season for the Nailers, will center the No. 1 line, be the team's top penalty killer, and is in charge of shutting down the opponent's top unit.
That could be seen as an awful lot to put on the plate of a guy who is coming off a shoulder injury that forced Manderson to sit out all but one game last season.
''I missed being with the guys, riding the bus,'' Manderson, 24, said. ''If anything, the injury kind of showed me that I do miss those things.
''It's easy to take hockey for granted.''
Manderson isn't doing anything of the sort these days. He's enjoying the every day grind that only professional hockey can provide. The Fergus, Ontario, native stood out during American Hockey League camp with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last month and there's little doubt from anyone inside or outside the Pittsburgh organization that he belongs with the Baby Penguins.
''My goal isn't to play in Wheeling,'' Manderson said. ''I think I got a lot of positives out of it and I think (the Penguins) were happy with my camp.
"On a personal note I am kind of proud of the camp I had after missing a full year. I don't think it's easy to jump right back in and kind of pick up where I left off.''
The mere fact Manderson will not only be in uniform, but play a key role, when the Nailers open the season at 7 tonight at WesBanco Arena against rival Elmira is a testament to his no-quit worth ethic. A lot of hours put into rehab - about five months to heal - and Manderson said he still isn't done in that regard.
"I've had many problems in my shoulders so I think I am just trying to stay on top of it. It's a never-ending battle,'' Manderson said. ''I've had this same procedure done a few times so I knew what I was getting into.
"It made for a tough year. Nobody likes to get surgery, let alone miss a full season.''
Manderson's surgery was performed in Pittsburgh, which was part of the reason he could still be seen at WesBanco Arena throughout the season.
"There's not much going on in Canada in the winter if you can't play hockey,'' Manderson joked.
Despite his point-producing penchant, Manderson had to work his way up the pro ladder as a defensive specialist under then-coach Stan Drulia. He went on to put up 40 points (18g-22a) in 52 games, but is most proud of the work in the opposite end of the rink.
''It was pretty tough at the time and I was kind of sick of it, to be honest,'' Manderson said of his early role. ''I think it was a lesson I needed to learn and I am thankful for it now.
''I take just just as much pride in killing penalties, winning face-offs and playing the other team's top line as I do scoring goals. Hopefully I can keep that going.''